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A week and two days on the Sloop Providence

Posted by astamatt on August 10, 2007

Last week, Heather and I had the opportunity to sail with the Sloop Providence to assist with the summer cadet program. I was definitely excited to know I’d be spending time on the Providence. I always thought it was pretty cool because it had cannons. All summer Heather had been inundating me with tales of her two months spent on Providence last summer. A number of them focused on seasickness. All told, I didn’t know what to expect or what the kids we would be working with would be like.

We arrived at the sloop Monday, with little time to spare before the kids arrived in their big yellow bus. Exiting their bus and walking down the dock, they looked like a motley and diverse bunch. They were pretty excited initially as they came up the gangplank and congregated in a gibbering mass on the maindeck. That excitement promptly deflated when they were treated to a history lesson of the historical ship. Looking at their downcast faces and twitchy arms, it was evident that they didn’t come onboard to get schooled. Following that was some intial knot-tying and belaying tutorials – skills they would become familiar with in the days to come. After lunch they all had a tour of Ft. Adams. When they finally came back several hours later they were all complaints – pleas of hunger and misgivings about the sun as they crowded in whatever little shade was available. The crew set about to teaching them knots, and while some learned them the majority seemed distant and disinterested and it was a real fight to get their attention, much less maintain it. They were, in general, relieved when the bus came to pick them up.

At the time I was not really worried about them continuing to be apathetic throughout the week. I couldn’t really blame them – if I was them, I know I would want to be out in the bay sailing, not getting orientations and tours. I felt pretty confident that they would perk up once we got out on the water.

The next day we didn’t waste much time before making preparations to head out into the bay. The kids had by now been split into two watches: Port and Starboard. The watch that won the “challenge” of the previous day chose between picking the course the ship would follow for the day or giving the ship a deckwash, including polishing the brass. Much to my surprise, the winning watch opted to do the deckwork over navigation! I don’t think we’d have so willingly taken deckwash/domestics over navigation back on Picton Castle, but whatever the kids wanted is what they got. I have a feeling that they wanted the fun involved with using the fire hose.

In quick time we were steaming out into the bay. When we made some distance out from our berth we quieted the engine and raised the mainsail and headsails. Little did I know just how much sailhandling our cadet crew was in for that day, I doubt they had more of a  clue then I had. Apparently, the watch who got to choose the course decided to tack upwind and against the current. Needless to say, there was no real headway made. But that didn’t matter because the kids got a lot of practice using the lines. It was interesting to watch them work, some of the kids were active and brought themselves up to the bow again and again to ease and haul the sheets as we tacked. Others were more timid. I believe that they were still getting over the new surroundings and the new world they found themselves in. A tall ship setting can be intimidating, not only because it is unfamiliar and complex in appearance, but also because of the sudden yelling of orders. Overall, I could tell they learned a lot but there was a bit of a gap between the kids who could be more easily engaged to sail the ship and the others who hung back.

Over the next two days of sail I noticed a substantial amount of improvement. The cadets got a lot of sailhandling practice in because of the constant tacking throughout our days of sail. I was impressed that Captain J.C. intended to sail the ship as much as possible, despite currents or wind. There were a couple of days where we got a good sail in, and the sloop handled better at sailing then I would have expected. On Wednesday however, despite a frenzy of tacking we were unable to beat the sloop upwind and against the current, we ended up drifting backwards through the Pell Bridge with sail set. The cadets were not discouraged however, they were happy to have gone under the bridge. Regardless, when it came time to tack, the kids, by the end of Thursday, needed little to no encouragement to come forward to handle the lines. Sheet lines that used to flog wildly were now under better control, lines were not made fast counterclockwise and coils not hung over the pin. They were also not as shy to come forward to participate and  some of them even waited nearby in anticipation.

I was talking to one of the quieter cadets on Wednesday and he told me that he was having a great time. When I asked him what his favorite part was he said it was doing the heavy work at line handling. When I asked him what his least favorite part was, he said it was lunch, because when he was at lunch he was not handling sail. At the end of Thursday the challenge for the cadets was a pin-rail chase. While they were a bit stumped by some lines, they knew the lines that they had used to tack all week.

Then Friday arrived – it was the day that the kids were going to do as much of the sailing of the ship as possible – all done in front of the eyes of their parents. Even though it was a short sail, the kids did remarkably well, the professional crew did not have to do much help at all. Compared to the first day when they could barely coil a line, the cadets were now easing and hauling and not hesitating to put their lines on the pins. A number of them were coiling lines better than I was after a few days on Picton Castle. I remember how demure, unenthusiastic and timid they were on their first day. By the end of Friday they were all smiles as they moved confidently about the deck to attend to their duties.

One cadet made very impressive progress. On the first day he was unenthusiastic and he could not be motivated to do anything besides tie a slipknot, which was the knot he decided to tie after giving up on tying a bowline. I would not have guessed that he would have been an enthusiastic watch leader midway through the week. I couldn’t help but notice that he knew the lines during the pin-rail chase better than anyone else. He did very well when he applied himself. Another cadet on Thursday was allowed to steer the ship into the dock – I can imagine how proud she must have felt after that – I remember how accomplished I felt after bringing Picton Castle into anchorage. As they received their certificates, I could see that the kids felt that they had done something really cool. I think the program did a lot for their confidence. More than a few of them said that they would like to do it again when I asked them. A very different reaction from day one when I could see by their bewildered and confused faces that they were universally second-guessing their decision to come aboard.

That was week one. Today, Wednesday is the third day of the second week of the program. Most of the cadets on board are new, but there is a handful from the first week.  Tuesday we put the ship out into the bay for some sailing. Unfortunately there was very little wind to fill the sails or carry away the humidity. Needless to say enthusiasm was slightly dampened, but not as much as I would have expected. While there was a number of tacks there was less sailhandling then usual. However the time was not passed by idly. Almost all of them learned to tie bowlines, and more than a few learned several more knots. This group of cadets is remarkable in their ability to master knots. I taught a bowline to a cadet and after only a few times demonstrating he was quickly able to tie the knot I taught another girl four knots and she learned them all in rapid succession, in less than twenty minutes! Much, much faster then I managed to learn my knots.

This morning (Wednesday) the weather was foul, so the sailing portion of the program was canceled for today. Instead the cadets were taken to the Museum of Yachting, a small aquarium, and the International Yacht Restoration School. They were not very enthused about the Museum of Yachting, it is a musuem after all and these kids want to be hands on. They did enjoy the aquarium considerably though, especially a touch tank that allowed everyone to pick up small sea life for examination. Afterwards they had lunch and got a few minutes to play on a beach playground. The people who had the most fun at the playground though was the Providence‘s professional crew – they were climbing all over everything to get as high as possible, or, in one case, jumping into the ocean fully clothed. They are clearly sailors.

The International Yacht Restoration School was interesting, the cadets enjoyed watching the yacht students in the process of building/restoring their boats. The kids were  awed by the sight of the hull of the schooner yacht Coronet. I was as well- it is massive. It was built in 1885, making it truly remarkable that it still exists, especially since few wooden buildings last that long, much less wooden ships. More than a few of the kids  requested that I make sure to send photographs taken of them near the Coronet.

I am looking foward to tommorow’s sail – I believe that they will impress us. These cadets have proved themselves very capable so far. The kids that continued with the program from last week are particularly capable and confident, hard to believe they are same kids who were timid and bored-looking a week ago. Tommorow is also the much anticipated night on board the Providence.  Heather and I will be there – I am looking forward to it, especially after hearing about the fun they had on the last one

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3 Responses to “A week and two days on the Sloop Providence”

  1. Heather and Matt;

    Thanks for being so important and integral to the Providence program over the past 2 weeks!

  2. astamatt said

    No problem Peter, it was fun for us!

  3. Robin said

    Hi, I am trying to get in touch with the people who run the Providence Sloop but the phone and website are disconnected. Do you know who I might contact?

    Many thanks!

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