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Posted by Tall Ships America on July 12, 2016


Safely alongside in Fairport Harbor

Safely alongside in Fairport Harbor

By Summer Intern Ben

“Let me tell you about scared. Your heart is beating so hard I can feel it through your hands. There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain it’s like rocket fuel. Right now you could run faster and you can fight harder. You can jump higher than ever in your life and you are so alert it’s like you can slow down time. What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a superpower!”

– Doctor Who

Fear is a strange thing to a sailor. The sailor is thought of as brave. There’s the whaleman, the navy serviceman, the marine, and even the merchant — all were regarded with a degree of respect for the simple act of crossing seas and braving oceans. But we have made passage over oceans for hundreds of years at this point, and to be on the water has become almost commonplace. But still, especially among tall ships, this feeling persists. Of all breeds of occupations, none is regarded as being brave as a sailor is.

It is paradoxical in that the sailor oftentimes has the most to fear. Rain, wind, weather, treacherous shoals and reefs, and worst of all, the simple professional mistake. A line mis-handled, slips, falls, all are worthy things to be weary of. And then there are the more persistent ever-present risks of sailing; falling overboard, fire, abandoning ship. when compounded these things make a cacophony of terror that should surely beget a higher salary for those who carry out the shipping that drives our very society. And yet, when asked if they are afraid, the average sailor would probably give an indifferent shrug.

It has been said that the only time a person can be truly brave is when they are truly afraid. I don’t think that truly describes a sailor. When I first climbed Niagara’s rig to the t’gallant yard with these thoughts a-flurry in my head, being brave because I was afraid simply did not make sense.

Historically, this is an explanation for this. Fear can be overcome by other threat. In the simplest case, an order would certainly drive a reluctant sailor aloft. Command could send him into a cutter in 10 foot seas. Duty could drive him to fire a gun and lose his hearing in the process, or board an enemy ships to risk grisly death. Money could drive him to fight for a prize, to haul the wind harder, or to lay out on a yard while rounding cape horn. The modern sailor on a tallship does not have such motivations.

It was last evening when we had set out from Erie aboard the Niagara. The first several hours of the day were a dull monotony of cleaning and prepping to get ready for her summer’s voyaging. Food, gear, and crew’s possessions all had to be loaded, and every pallet of firewood seemed to drag on forever. By the early afternoon it was finally ready to cast off dock lines and haul up fenders.

The wind out of the west made fore a difficult passage for Pennsylvania to Ohio along the Lake’s southern shore. We set out under topsails t’gallants and staysails, and tacked several times in the evening, but the leeway of the brig gave us precious little progress to westward. After dinner, the watches were sent below but me having my usual luck had been assigned to the first division which mustered to take the watch from 8 to 11. Dusk was just falling, and taking the first spell at the helm afforded a wonderful view of the sunset off the starboard bow.

Then the hour turned and positions rotated. I was leaning idle by the scuttlebut when the call came to take in and furl t’gallants. I lay aloft with one of the professional crew and climbed as fast as I felt safe, yet it felt the rig passed very quick. Before I knew it I was through the lubbers hole on the fighting top, through the gap in the crosstrees to the step of the t‘gallant mast, and out on to the line.

Certainly part of it was timing. When the order comes there’s seldom time for fear. But once I was up on the t’gallant yard, I could feel my heart pounding. It was exhilarating and terrifying. In that moment, just after the sun had set there was nothing surrounding us but lake — open water for miles. Nothing in the world but the dome of the sky and the plain of the sea. Even the vessel beneath me seemed to fall away as I felt myself lost to the wind and waves. But I was shortly curtailed, and again realized where I was and what I was to be doing. Reaching over the sail I saw the deck which seemed miles below me, and again my stomach was in my throat and I was holding on for dear life, but soon enough the sail was furled, and before I knew it I was back on deck. Fear was a guide in the end, not a threat, but a companion. I’m not one for horror movies, but obviously some people have the right of it — fear can be fun.


Ben and George are currently racing on Denis Sullivan. We’ll reconnect in Bay City later this week. Stay tuned for updates from the race!


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