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THE LURE OF THE SEA A 20th Century Adventure on an 18th Century Ship

by Sarah Elzas An open sea, a massive, wooden square-rigged sailing ship and cannons...Pirates? No, there are no cutlasses here. This is the HMS Rose, a replica of a Royal Navy frigate built in 1757 that takes groups of trainees out to sea to teach them how to sail a full-rigged ship. This is every kid’s dream come true, and I had the opportunity to live it, accompanying 24 students who were traveling from New York’s South Street Seaport to Boston Harbor. From hoisting sails, to cleaning the deck, to participating in a mock battle with another ship, the moment we boarded the Rose, we became instant sailors for the seven day trip.

The students ranged from freshmen in high school to incoming college freshmen. Some were involved in a rowing program at the Hull Lifesaving Museum in Hull, Massachusetts, led by director, Edward McCabe. They are part of teams that practice on a regular basis, and many of them also work for McCabe in the boathouse. Others were from South Boston High School, an unofficial marine magnet school, and were accompanied by Carl Johnson, their marine biology teacher.

The objective of the trip, sponsored by the National Maritime Historical Society (NMHS), was to provide these students with first-hand experience sailing and learning history. “The only way to really learn is through experience,” said David Allen, the Director of Education at the NMHS in New York who was in charge of all on-board education activities. The Rose is a ‘sailing school vessel’ which means that everyone on board is part of the crew; there are no passengers. Each student experiences life on board as a deckhand, learning responsibility for the ship as their home for a week. And what a home it was. Although the Rose is a replica of an 18th century sailing ship, she was not lacking 20th century innovation, and had all the comforts of home, including hot water in the showers, a VCR and even a computer in the main cabin. The crew did all the maintenance except for cooking. Hunter, the cook on board, produced hearty meals three times a day—no fear of scurvy for us. Though he ran a strict kitchen, he was accommodating to specific requests. And it is no wonder that everyone gladly pitched in with the cleaning; his chocolate chip cookies alone would make anyone do it with a smile.

The Rose is headed by Captain Richard Bailey and consists of 19 paid crew members plus Jackal, the small dog. Many are students taking a break (temporary or permanent) from their studies, or or are recent graduates, but there are others who make this their life. All have stories of their experiences on ships of various shapes and sizes. Anne, a deck hand, is from France and worked in Maine on a schooner for a while before joining the Rose. Andrew, another deck hand, is from Seattle and left after high school, deciding that he would rather be on the ocean than anywhere else. From the beginning we were organized into four hour watches to work around the clock. After a watch we had eight hours to sleep, eat and do ship maintenance such as painting, which needs to be redone on a regular basis. Each watch was divided into four parts: bow watch, helm, boat check and standby. Bow watch means standing at the front of the ship and reporting anything in the water, no matter how trivial, to the captain or the mate. Helm is the steering of the ship which requires attention to follow specific compass headings. Because she is so large, the Rose does not respond quickly and takes time to change direction. Boat check is a series of checks of the various bilges—compartments below decks where water seeps in and needs to be pumped out. There is also a check for fire, because of its devastating effects on a wooden ship. Standby is a rotation that gives anyone working on the ship an extra set of hands for tasks such as climbing the rigging to handle the sails.

Cycles of being on watch, eating, sleeping and taking the time to reflect on the ocean did not follow normal patterns of night and day, and sea life quickly deviated from land life. There was an incredible feeling of teamwork when everyone pitched in to tack into the wind. By the first night, the students seemed to have adjusted well, despite the grumblings about the ‘sea showers’ (water only for getting wet and rinsing, no running in-between) and the 4 am wake-ups.

Allen describes life on board ship as a metaphor for life. This sort of opportunity builds teamwork and leadership skills and can prepare students for other experiences, such as college. “If you can master this alien environment, you can master any environment,” he said.

The first day out, we were scheduled to meet with the Endeavor, an Australian tall ship and a replica of another 18th century sailing vessel. When the Endeavor got close, we were told to move to the starboard (right, when facing the bow) side of the ship because we were going to fire our cannons. What ensued is something I thought only existed in pirate stories—a battle at sea! Through the smoke we could hear the Rose’s engineer, Willie, shouting “Fire in the hull!” and the deafening blasts. Although we were firing blanks at each other, everyone on the Rose agreed that we had won the battle. Scott Moses, one of McCabe’s rowers, was on board with his twin sisters. “I thought it would be a lot harder. Pulling ropes is easy,” he said. Many students, however, were afraid of climbing the rigging to secure and unfurl sails, and soft city hands, unused to sea work, became chafed after the first watch.

Part of the daily activities for the students on board were classes, and during my stay, I was taught about safety measures on board the vessel as well as a basic introduction to the 19 sails and all the ropes of the ship. We learned the various combinations of alarms to warn of fire, man-overboard or abandon ship. We were treated to a demonstration of a man-overboard and students wore insulated suits that we would have to put on to abandon ship. When we were first learning to raise and lower the sails, we often found ourselves lost when a crew member said to “strike the mizzen t’gallon” (which means loosen the top-most sail on the mast at the back of the ship in order to wrap it up). We quickly learned the lingo.

The crew, however, was patient and led us through the maneuvers. By Tuesday we had sailed Long Island Sound to Block Island, Rhode Island, where I was to leave. It must have been an impressive sight to see the two tall ships come into the bay of the 600 person island.

Captain Bailey was very excited to be sailing along with the Endeavor because it is a unique opportunity to have two tall ships sailing together. In fact, he had me go out in a small motor boat with two crew members and four cameras so we could take pictures of the two ships together. “I can give you all the pictures of the Rose you want, but both together is a rare sight,” he said, insisting that I take as many pictures as I could.

After a week at sea, the students may be happy to disembark. Unlike their “sea legs” when stepping onto land, this experience will last them long after they leave the ship.

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