Oh Captain, my Captain!
Posted by Tall Ships America on July 19, 2010
The captain of a tall ship not only controls the pace of life aboard a ship, but where the ship goes, how she gets there, who is on the boat, and the hierarchy of the boat. He or she is the head navigator and ultimate leader. He also works the longest hours and gets the least amount of sleep. I remember noticing the captain of Denis Sullivan waking up at 6 and going to sleep around midnight, working the entire time without taking a break. Needless to say, his coffee consumption was enormous.
Besides drinking an abundance of coffee, there seems to be a few things that “good” captains have in common. I asked several sailors what made their favorite captains so successful. According to Foretek, a deckhand aboard Pride of Baltimore II, “A good captain keeps his thumb on the pulse of the crew. He should know what the boat is capable of and what the crew is capable of.” Vast experience and “knowing the rig” also make a captain respected. I talked to a couple of hands from the Bounty as well, who had very high praise for their captain. “He really knows the boat,” said one; “He is the man, he is awesome, he is God. But don’t tell him I said that.”
The captain does enjoy a special position within his own boat. On my very first day aboard a tall ship, one of the deckhands actually informed me that “on his own boat, the Captain is God.” I think I scoffed at him and sniggered a little behind my hand, but most traditional tall ship sailors do cherish a special reverence for their captains. I noticed quickly that when the captain was coming, everyone got out of the way. They obeyed him without question, set food aside for him at meals, and were exceedingly polite and deferent to him.
This deference stems from long maritime traditions, and some ships observe them more than others. To the crew of the Europa, the captain is treated like everybody else, though with respect. “These Dutch people aren’t so in to hierarchy. We’re pretty informal here, and it works for us,” says Matt, a deckhand. “When I was on Niagara, though, it was really different. Only the officers can go into the bridge and the wardroom.” According to Matt, the Niagara tries to observe at least a semblance of the hierarchy that would have existed in 1813, when the original boat would have been in use.
The Pride of Baltimore II also observes certain traditions regarding the captain. “The captain always gets windward on the quarterdeck,” says Foretek. The windward side of the boat is higher and safer than the leeward side when the sails are set. “He also always sits at the head of the table, and we keep an eye on his mug because he always loses it.” She also mentioned a certain amount of respect for the office: just general politeness and obedience.
There is often a sort of familial warmth towards the captain within the crew. “We can make fun of him, but other crews can’t. Just like siblings,” explains Foretek. A willingness to have fun while also pushing the crew to improve is particularly respected. “I want to be able to trust him blindly and to feel safe with him,” said my friend from Bounty. “If our captain wasn’t with us, we wouldn’t be a ship. We’d just be a boat.”