Friday, June 14, 2013

All I Ask Is a Tall Ship and a Star to Steer Her By

I don’t know when I first fell in love with sailing ships. Maybe it was the sight of Peter Pan flying off to Neverland in the Disney version of the story.  Maybe it was the adventure in Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood or Frank Yerby’s The Golden Hawk. I was already far, far gone by the time the Black Pearl and the Interceptor sailed onto the scene. I’ve watched the parade of ships in Commencement Bay, toured the Constitution and Eagle in port, and crouched aboard the Hawaiian Chieftain while her cannons puffed smoke.  But last Friday, I fulfilled a dream I’ve had since 1989, when the Lady Washington was launched.

I spent 8 hours aboard our state’s tall ship.
I was what they call a transit passenger.  The Lady Washington and her companion ship the Hawaiian Chieftain have a number of ports of call along the West Coast, from the sunny beaches of San Diego to the crystal waters off British Columbia.  Every few years, she ventures inland up the mighty Columbia River.  You can make arrangements to sail with her from one port to another.  I embarked at the Port of Umatilla and sailed along the border between Washington and Oregon until the river curves and takes you north to Pasco, 38 miles in all.
Eight passengers shivered in the early morning light at the dock.  We were given the choice to sail on either ship.  But when the others saw that the only way aboard the Lady was a rope ladder hanging down her side (she was berthed in such a way she could not lower her gangplank), they opted for the more civilized stairs leading to the Chieftain.  Thus, I had the Lady, and her crew, all to myself.  Because that ladder was not going to stand between me and my dream, however, ungainly I might have appeared going up it!

We set out from the port and headed upriver.  The sails were all furled, and we were running on the Lady’s engine, but that didn’t mean the crew got to relax.  Our first challenge in making it to Pasco lay in the locks of McNary Dam.  The crew heaved on the ropes, canting the yards on the fore and main masts to bring them within the line of the ship’s hull.  That way, they couldn’t be damaged when we navigated the locks, which looked a bit like the gates of Mordor as we approached.
As we pulled into the black channel, the Chieftain right behind us, we could see people high on the walls.  Some of the employees of the dam had brought their children with them, and they waved pirate flags at us while their parents snapped pictures.  It’s not every day a sailing ship comes to town.
Once through the locks, it was clear sailing for a time, past the dusty hills and black basalt that makes up much of this part of Washington. Up into the rigging scrambled the crew, to hang high over my head as they unfurled the sails.  And out bellied the white from the yards.  It was an inspiring sight in the warm summer air on the peaceful river.  But I kept thinking how much harder it would have been in a driving rain on the Pacific!

At one point, the Chieftain cruised past us.  She has two engines to the Lady’s one; her foremast is a cleverly disguised smokestack.  The crew wanted to pelt her with pancakes left over from breakfast (no lie!).  They had the slingshot rigged and were taking aim, but the captain denied them permission to fire.  There were lady passengers on the other ship, after all. 

I was surprised and not a little pleased to find that of the 12 members of the crew, 7 were women, including the first mate, bosun, gunner’s mate, and purser.  I was also surprised to see so much rope!  Madam Bosun told me that Lady has over 6 miles of the stuff to manage her sails and hold her fast.  Then there’s the helm, only there’s no wheel.  The Lady is steered by tiller.  When you see a wheel on her in the movies, it’s been put on for show. 

We continued on north, the crew working at sanding and oiling woodwork such as belaying pins while I quizzed them unmercifully.  But it soon became apparent by the tight countenances of the captain and first mate that all was not right.  When the Lady Washington first sailed to Pasco 4 years ago, the crew discovered that the information they had on a railroad bridge near the town of Finley was incorrect.  The Lady could, in fact, not pass under her without removing about the top 10 feet of her mast.  You can imagine that was not an easy feat in the middle of the river.  Taking precautions, they had already removed the upper mast at a port downriver.  But information now indicated that the river was running high, and the bridge might be lower than expected.  It was, in fact, quite possible we wouldn’t fit, and we didn’t have any more mast to remove!
The engineer and a sailor ventured into the rigging to take measurements, and based on the information we’d been given, we either had 5 feet of clearance, or we would take off the top 2 feet of mast if we tried to go under!  We approached, once more on engine power and going very slowly.  The iron bridge, black with rust from years of use, stood in stark contrast to the graceful lines of the ship. 

The captain wanted to know exactly how much clearance he had, if any.  So the engineer climbed to the very top of the rigging and hung there with a long rod in his hand, with orders to poke the bridge as we passed under it and get a measurement of the difference. 

“Report!” the captain called up as we inched forward.

“I think we’ll make it,” the engineer replied.


Silence for a moment.  Then, “Yes.”

The engine purred.  And we were through with 5 feet to spare.  Phew!
We arrived in Pasco as planned.  All in all, it was an amazing adventure, and I have so much admiration for those who give up their lives to sail.  The bosun told me the ship is her home.  Her 12 square feet of bunk space and trunk is all the property she owns in the world.

All she wants is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.


Leandra Wallace said... it weird that I got teary-eyed after reading this? I loved getting to hear about your adventure- and who gets to climb a rope ladder up into a boat every day?!

Regina Scott said...

Not weird at all, Leandra! I'd say that makes us kindred spirits! Thank you for letting me know!