Looking For The Stars In Their Eyes

The sun setting through the rigging of a tall ship
Sunset Aboard the Lady Washington

I’m looking for the stars in their eyes at the sight of tall masts and white sails.

I’m looking for the woman I once was, eyes on the horizon, feet on the topgallant footropes and hands on rough canvas. She’s out there, I’m hoping that she will still be out there a century hence doing the work I once did. Now that I can no longer do it, I’m looking for the next set of hands who will take joy in making ships brave with paint, bright with varnish and black with tar.

Woman helping to rerig sailing ship
The next generation, bending on sail as the season begins.

I work in a museum of ships. I came there with stars in my eyes. I was so taken with them, their beauty and the adventures that could be had aboard them, that I took the hands of the sailors that came before me and volunteered to help care for them. My weekends were filled with the lessons that only an historic vessel and living sailors can teach. I learned the precise language required, the names of things and tasks that allow specific instructions to be passed in few words. By doing the various jobs that must be done if the boat is to make it to the future, I forged relationships with every vessel I worked in. I couldn’t help it—I came there in love with adventure and the sea, and it wasn’t long before I fell for the ships too.

Crew members in the rigging of a tall ship
Modern tallship crew

There is nothing like being part of a crew. I’d wanted this since my teens, when I was a Sea Scout. A wooden whaleboat wasn’t enough, but being female, there was no way at the time that I could find to take the adventure farther. By the time I returned, in my late thirties, tall ships had become, if not common, far more numerous and it wasn’t long before I made my first trip as a volunteer. Times have changed. Women are an accepted part of this world now. I came to it too late to do it for long, but I have been out of sight of land in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans now, furling sail high above deck, the sky close enough to touch. It has changed me in ways I couldn’t have foreseen and wouldn’t trade for anything. The adventure has been mine for long enough to know how to share it.

Looking down on the deck of a tall ship from high in the rigging
Standing on the fore topmast cap

I don’t sail in these ships any more. I can no longer do the work, and I won’t inflict myself on a crew if I can’t do my share. But I can still be useful ashore. I know how to do the work and can teach others. I can transmit that DTI—that Deckhand Transmitted Infection of love for the vessel and joy in being part of a crew. Working where I do I can be there when those people walk in with stars in their eyes and I can tell them the things that no one was there to tell me. I can tell the stories of the ships and help everyone who wants one to find their connection to them. So many people come in with a fantasy. Pirates are a starting point, but adventure is a shared experience and sailors are far more interesting. My treasure chest is full of memories, tools, and skills. Sunrises shared as the watch was gathered around the tiller, the ship plunging and rising as the wind carried us along. I went aboard my first ship with a duffle bag full of books. I was afraid I’d run out of things to read in three whole weeks at sea. I’ve never been aboard a ship where there wasn’t an active and varied bookshelf. My canvas ditty bag is on the shelf in the next room, filled with everything I need to repair a sail or for that matter, fix anything else made of heavy fabric or leather. That is something I can still do. The knots I know are just as useful for tying down a load on a bicycle or a truck because these skills are not all limited to ships and sailing.

I’m looking for the next pair of hands now. The tasks and the ships are passed from hand to hand, sailor to sailor. The language of ships is an oral tradition. You can read about it, but what seems incomprehensible on the page is perfectly plain when the tools are in your hand and a living person is showing you how it’s done. When I tell you that the ship will also tell you how to do the job, you’ll probably think me fanciful—or insane—but it’s true. You just have to speak her language. You probably know part of it already. Flaking paint or bare wood or metal is easy enough to spot. Knowing how to prepare and paint the surface is not hard to learn. Is something broken? If the vessel is well cared for, the same equipment on the other side is probably fine and can serve as a guide for repair. Experience will tell you what is dangerous, what is annoying, and what is just unkempt.

A vessel forges a group of people into a crew, by the simple act of caring for her. A vessel without a crew will soon be gone. It’s expensive to take care of a boat. They truly are holes in the water into which you pour money. This is why a boat without a job is destined for the breaker’s yard. The time and effort her survival demands requires a purpose for her existence. The next pair of hands must be sustained by the work. So a vessel and a crew live in symbiosis, we both need to earn our keep.

Remains of a metal sailing ship lying on an Oregon beach
Wreck of the PETER IREDALE

My museum is that purpose, on both sides. When I talk of the vessels, I count their existences as museum ships as careers, as legitimate as their time carrying cargo, fishing, or any other purpose they served. Their cargo now is memory, education, and to serve as our living memory. I learned the beginnings of a trade in them and would be learning still if injury had not cut my days as a hands-on member of the crew short. I earned a living aboard then, and I do so still. In my own personal symbiosis I, too, carry memory and knowledge. A museum is a place where Muses dwell. Those vessels are nothing less. The people of my nation, and visitors of all nations are willing to pay to maintain these ships, and so they go on living. They grow ever more precious as the years pass because there are fewer of them every year. The sheer amount of work that is necessary to maintain them, and the lack of an obvious economic return for that labor means that many are lost. FALLS OF CLYDE is fighting for her life even as I write. WAPAMA was cut up in 2013, and WAWONA in 2009. Those three are just some of the latest casualties on the West Coast of North America.

San Francisco Bay from the deck
The view from the fo’c’sle head

Discovery is sexy, maintenance is not, except for the few insane individuals like myself who find meaning in scraping paint and tarring down. Those next sets of hands who will take these vessels into the future are a rare breed, and so my job, essentially, is being paid to be that crusty old sailor who used to haunt the dockside. Being able to make a living doing it is a relatively new development. The maintaining of ships simply to serve as repositories for memory and the teaching of skills is a product of prosperity. It is difficult, when money is the yardstick, to see the sense in it, but how precious is the maintaining of skills in the human database? What price can we put on living memory? If we value it enough to continue doing it, then we as a species will still be able to go to sea under sail, and the bodies and minds of those who choose to do so will still have the option of being shaped by that knowledge. We will retain something rare,  a very special way of life and a hard and rewarding school for those who choose to enroll in it. The skills will possibly become very useful if the oil runs out before we find another means of powering our civilization. Wind will always be free, if fickle, and it is up to us whether or not we will still remember how to harness it.

A rainbow created by the washdown water in the sun
Rainbows in the wash water

Sailing Into Land, Sky, and Sea

The Golden Gate Bridge, and the waters of San Francisco Bay framed by the ship's rig.
The Golden Gate Bridge seen from the deck of the Lady Washington

It takes five types of lines to work a square sail. That means that if you understand this basic pattern, you’re well on the way to understanding the rig, and how it works. Sure there are well over a hundred lines on any ship, but there are only three basic repeating patterns–the square sails, the fore and aft staysails/jibs, and the gaff rigged spanker. There can be a few others thrown in there, depending, but once you know the basics, the others become pleasant variations. So I’m making a tiny demonstration mast with a square sail on it and those ten lines, one set of five for each side, to show people how it works.

I neither expect nor want the visitors to go out with an understanding of all of this, I just want to present the boat as something accessible and user friendly–because it is.  It’s sad to see people consider the language of the sea as complicated and impenetrable. It is short and precise, true, but based on patterns which are basically the same in any ship in the world. Our mission statement in part directs us to preserve the maritime culture and history of the sea. If I can’t paint and scrape any more, I can certainly do that.

As a Pagan and a Druid, I see Land, Sky and Sea come together in a sailing ship. This is a liminal space, and that’s why it’s so hard on ships and people. That’s why it can bring out the best in us, and it allows for a deep connection with those three realms. This is why skill has always been the yardstick at sea. The sea will always find you out, and the ship will do what she can to preserve the life within her, but she will not serve a bad master, or put up with poor seamanship, or craftsmanship. The sailor must put the ship first, for she is our life. We have to be aware of what she needs–that annoying deck leak will get worse if not dealt with. If there’s water in the bilge, where did it come from? If there’s rust, or rot, grab some tools and fix it. Keeping her brave with paint, bright with varnish and black with tar is not just aesthetics and respect for the vessel, it is what keeps rot and rust from becoming dangerous.

So a ship is a tool for developing awareness, and skill. The life of ships is measured in what sailors do and see. The tasks are repeated endlessly, but they are varied and can be endlessly fascinating. It feels good to get better at them, to notice when a line is getting worn or the coatings are failing–and to renew them. It definitely feels good to pass the skills on to the next set of hands. Sailors are links in a chain, passing the tasks and the vessels from hand to willing hand. Ships, like the world, are held together by love.

The ships talk to me. If the bilge water is salty, the ship is telling me that she leaks, down below, where it’s dangerous. That cleat that is crooked, leaning towards the strain of the cable is bedded in wood that is rotting away. The brightwork, shining in the sun, is the handiwork of a volunteer, an old man who sailed in steam and, strong and healthy still, comes in as dependable as the sun to do that work. The ship sustains him and he sustains her. I enjoy the sight and walk on. There’s a strange dull circle on the deck, inside where the mizzen mast passes through it. That deck used to be outside. The ship tells me where the fife rail used to stand by the marks it left in her deck. I ask the oldest shipwright about it. He points out the varnished deck and tells me of the capstan that used to be on display next to the mast, where it of course could never have been used. It kept a section of the deck as it had been when the ship was in service, because of course, the deck of a working ship is oiled. I remember the smell of a freshly oiled deck, the slow meditative work of pushing the mixture into the wood with a shearling pad on a pole. Together we find the square patch where a section of deck had been replaced long ago, where a capstan had originally been bolted down. Marks on the steel show where sections of bulkhead were altered, replaced. The ship wears her history on her hide.

Poetry is born where Land, Sea and Sky meet. A ship is a bit of Land, a dry place for humans to set their feet as we cross the trackless Sea under the endless Sky. I am a different person offshore and I miss the taste I have managed to get of that life. When conditions are good, it is like a bubble of quiet. I remember the Lady fighting her way north, up the coast, under power because there was a schedule to keep. The steady hum of the engine was the background all other sounds were built on. I learned to wedge myself into places on deck and below, becoming one with the steady pitch and roll, rocked to calmness by it. I slept like a starfish, spread out in my bunk, rocked to sleep. We are quiet because someone is always sleeping when the ship is under way, someone is always on watch. I crept through the darkness in the foc’s’le, a red lens in my flashlight as I checked the bilge, my crewmates sleeping around me. I stood on the bow, the eyes of the ship, walking quietly aft to report what I had seen to the watch leader. I climbed down into the hot, noisy engine room, making sure the straps of my gear were well tucked, my long braid securely down inside my coat. The cool air on deck was a relief when I emerged. The land danced beneath my feet for days after each voyage until I lost my sea legs. The poetry of wind and water will be with me forever.

Now I can no longer pull my weight aboard ship. So I limit my time to museum ships, retired like my Ladies. Since I can’t seem to keep my hands off the lines when others are working, this is simple self preservation. I’ve lost enough mobility and physical strength, thank you. I am still a link in the living chain of sailors, but my task now is to pass on skill, to inspire the next sets of hands and show them how to forge their own connection and find their own truths.