Saturday, July 09, 2005

Sailing

It's hard rolling out of bed before seven on a Saturday morning, but once in a while, it is worth it.

I was certain last night it would be raining this morning, that I would wake up, hit the alarm, look out at the rain on the fire escape, and slide back into sleep, but instead, glittering sunshine woke me before the alarm. I got up, made coffee, gathered my sunscreen, water, snacks, and a sweatshirt, and walked down to South Street Seaport for a training sail on the Pioneer.

It was my second training sail. I didn't write about last week's because it wasn't that much fun; there were "too many cooks" giving contradictory instructions, and I was the only brand new volunteer.

Today was perfect: a good breeze, sunshine, a whole lot of new volunteers, and the crew and experienced volunteers were very friendly. Communication was good.

We started by getting the boat ready - I helped raise the flags (including the "Don't Tread on Me" flag) and washed down the decks with a huge hose (very fun to play with - everyone expects to get at least a little wet, so I got to soak their feet - I tried to warn them before soaking their butts, but a few got sprayed!). We left the dock and then came straight back in so that one of the crewmembers could practice docking. Imagine parallel parking a vintage auto from 125 years ago with a vintage mac truck only yards away... that's what docking feels like to me.

The captain divided us into three "watches" of about 5-6 people, a mix of new and experienced volunteers and crewmembers. My watch started at the bow. You have a few jobs on bow watch: handle the bow spring and bow stern lines,* which tie up the boat when she's docked, handle the headsails (jib and staysail), and keep watch. I like this part of the boat best, because you've got a fantastic view of the harbor, and keeping watch is both important and relaxing. If you're really lucky, you get to climb out into the headrig, which is a sort of netting dangling over the water. You walk out on the headrig to untie or tie up the headsails. Looking down through the headrig, you see the water below. It's fabulous. We didn't get to do this today, sadly, but I did it last week. Now, my least favorite part of the Pioneer is also in the bow. I forget what it's called, but it's a block (like a pulley) that slides back and forth along a metal bar about a foot off the deck. It's evil. When working in the bow, I feel like it is always about to come careening towards me and take out my shin: and it is. Most of the time, tension holds it in more or less one place, but if the wind changes or if we tack, away it goes, sliding down the bar.

That was pretty much the only watch we did, because the sail went incredibly quickly, and we did some whole-crew drills. First, the captain showed us how to raise the topsail, a little one that (I think) only goes up in good wind, on top of the mainsail. Then, we did a man-overboard drill. If someone goes overboard, you have to do three things: call out "man overboard" until someone responds so that you know they heard, keep your eyes on the person and point to them, and throw something that floats in the water. Beyond that, you follow the captain and mate's instructions. Most of us pretended to be passengers while a few of the more experienced volunteers helped the crew do the drill. In the middle of the drill, the engine would not start - an unplanned difficulty - so we had to rescue the "person" (a buoy) under sail only. To my mind, it took a long time, but that's why you do the drills, to get better at these things. It was funny to see the buoy wrapped in a blanket for warmth when we finally pulled it on deck. After the man overboard drill, we did a fire drill, and again most of us got to pretend we were passengers. It is the job of the volunteers during real sails (with passengers) to do crowd control with the passengers, keep them out of the way and safe, prevent parents from jumping overboard to rescue their drowning child, etc. No passengers - and no children - have ever gone overboard from the Pioneer, but you still have to be ready.

I am learning vocabulary faster than I am learning how to do things. I know that halyard is a line (rope) used to raise a sail, while a sheet is a rope used to control the sail. I know how to make (tie off) a halyard or sheet, and I know that you use a hitch to make a halyard, thus securing the line tightly, while you do not use a hitch for a sheet because you need to be able to make fine adjustments using the sheet at any time. I know the names of the sail and the directions on a boat. I am learning to raise and lower sails. I'm not very good (nay, useless) at "sweating" a line, which is a kind of rocking back and forth with the line that you do to stretch it and increase tension on it. I am learning to coil rope in different ways - a balentine is a circle with three small, overlapping circles inside it, which allows the line to stay free of kinks so it feeds quickly and without fouling (getting knotted). On the first sail, we practiced knots, though I think I've forgotten most of that, although my hands may remember it better than my head.

I see how much fun this could be. It's also interesting because some of the captains, mates, and deckhands - real crew positions - started out as volunteers. Some have been sailing at the seaport for 10 years or more. If you just want to volunteer and sail every so often, you can do that, but you can also get checked off on a list of skills and move up in a hierarchy to positions of more authority or responsibility on board. And once you move up, you are eligible to sail on other ships and go on longer trips. For at least a few people, what started as a volunteer job became a career! And I am intrigued to discover that the Seaport Museum runs two small high schools as part of the NYC system.

*I am doing my best to remember the names of everything, but please forgive me if you know more about sailing than I do and I get something wrong. I'm hoping that writing it all down here will help me remember and won't be too boring for anyone reading.

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