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Posted by Tall Ships America on July 28, 2013

28 July 2013
By Eliza

Angry Clouds

A ship out at sea is surrounded by energy. There is the movement of the wind across the sails, the rhythm of the waves as they thrum against the hull, and the motion of the boat as it rollicks across the water. On calm, blue-skied days, a ship floats gently on a glassy sea. And if the wind increases, the sailors trim the sails and the ship heels over and cuts an even slice through the waves. But when a squall rolls in, the momentum surrounding you converges and vibrates in the tense air. A skilled mariner can often feel the squall coming and knows that the ship had better be ready when it hits.

As the squall approaches, all hands are called up on deck to furl sail. Never mind stumbling half-asleep to the banjer for some coffee – jump into your foul weather gear, still damp from the last storm, pull on your stinky boots and dash up on deck in a hurry. The temperature up there has dropped and the chilly wind numbs your ears beneath your winter hat. Someone is passing around a tangle of climbing harnesses; one is shoved into your outstretched hand. As soon as the straps are cinched tight, sailors are scrambling onto the rail and laying aloft. White-knuckled trainees grip the sturdy shrouds as they follow the professional crew, who fly up the rigging in an accustomed dash. Anyone who feels comfortable in the rig is expected to climb; as the wind whips up into a fury, it will take every hand possible to lash all the sails down tight.

A few skilled hands climb all the way up to the royal sail, over a hundred feet off the deck. Others are sliding out sideways along the topgallant yard, holding tight to the steel jackstay, balanced on a long, tarred footrope that shifts every time another sailor steps on. As soon as sailors have spread themselves out along the yard, they kick their feet backwards and lean over the yard to grab handfuls of sail. The more sail they can bundle up the better and this wrinkled mess of canvas is hurriedly rolled onto the yard so that it can be lashed down securely with a spiraled piece of line, or two.

Now the clouds are growing darker and the false night brings the first, fat droplets of rain. The Chief Mate has been watching the storm approach on the radar but the electronic equipment is extraneous now; thunder rumbles in the near distance and the First Officer is calling out from deck that everyone has two minutes to get to deck before lightning will be dangerously close to our steel ship and those aloft in the metal rig. Sailors are scrambling down from the rigging now. There is a race to the finish – those on the mainmast are faster than those on the foremast and the storm’s approach, imminent now, is faster than both. The First Officer watches until every last hand is safe on deck and huddled beneath the boat deck; now, the skies open and rain pours down in buckets. The professional crew and some volunteers dash out from cover to make fast the lines that are blowing around in the wind. It’s raining so hard that the rain stings their bare hands. To starboard, a streak of purple lightning cuts the sky and is met with a collective gasp of excitement. The subsequent clap of thunder silences the tense mirth beneath the boat deck and, exhausted, everyone stands watching nature’s display.

After some time, the rain eases up and the wind lessens. The lightning isn’t so close now, nor as often or dramatic. The off-watches are sent back to bed; they will relieve the on watch in a few hours so that others might get some sleep, too. But no one can sleep right now, even those that have been stood down. They huddle in the banjer, giggling through their exhaustion, peeling off layer after layer of sodden clothing. Boots are shaken out and soaked-through foulies are hung up to dry. Dry socks are pulled on and the jug of hot cocoa powder is passed around. Sipping mugs of cocoa below decks, the adrenaline settles. Some fall asleep at the table and are sent to bed. Within a few minutes, the rest of the crew wanders off towards their warm bunks.

A ship out at sea is surrounded by weather. Sometimes it’s glorious and sometimes it’s not. It’s the not about which visitors are most curious. I usually contrive a dramatic story about how we have to clamber from our bunks and scurry aloft as the wind picks up. I tell them how the first, fat droplets of rain hit as we lash the sails in place and how the officers urge us over the howling of the wind to hurry down from aloft. I usually end my stories with the crew gathered below decks, safe from the storm and enjoying each other’s quiet company. The visitors nod their heads, thrilled.

But to be completely honest, a squall is as tedious as it is exhilarating. You’re cold, and wet, and exhausted, and potentially nauseous. You climb aloft in the middle of the night in a thunderstorm because it’s your job, and you have to. It’s just another part of the crazy lives we lead. It’s just another part of living on the sea.


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