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.

Between Ages

I dream of training the next generation of Valkyries. 
I, who was not allowed to go to Japan,
A girl of sixteen alone in a crew of forty men.
The guy who canned me never met me.

I met others who were on that crew years later. 
When age was beginning to touch me
Those guys had had chances I didn’t,
Simply because of what swung between their legs.
They saw my tits first and my mind later
If they bothered to look for that long.

In Sea Scouts I’d dealt with this early,
Learning to fit myself in as part of a crew. 
Being one of us, the boat is what is important,
Not the shape of her crew. 

I was born too early
Or just at the right time. 
I straddle that line,
Between women being other,
And women being part of the crew. 
I knew both states, not allowed and one of the boys 
Simultaneously and separated by time.

I came at last to the ships in autumn,
Thinking the leaves would cling forever
Brown turned to gray, and my moment was over
Remembering what was, and what might have been, 
Had I not done as my mother said.
Sent the ship off with a basket of shore food 
And preserved the status quo.

What would they have done had they found me,
Four or ten days out,
Hidden in the hold of the Hinde? 

Cauldron’s Rim

Spiral blood red rose
The Blood Red Rose –Artist Thea Ruoho

Cauldron’s Rim

My cauldron is rimmed, not with pearls, but with Blood Red Roses.
Spirals graven there over the year we stirred the Awen together.
Scored by the stirring stick, colored by the brew,
One for each one of us together in the task.

Black the Cauldron’s rim.
Once it stretched from Wales to California.
Here on the Shore of the Western Sea,
Where Cerridwen called me, and I followed, not knowing,
Until I stood on the shores of Llyn Tegid,
A wreath of ogham floating at my feet.

Is it still there? I feel it, black but unmarked,
Like the flight path of the plane that carried me full circle.
I hold it in my hands, weightless, black and thick,
As I sit in the shallows of the lake.

A paradox, the rim was gone, the rim returns.
The cauldron is 5,000 miles across, then the width of my spread hands.
My tasks are not known to me, but I do as Cerridwen asks.
I ask the Maidens to warm it with their breath.
We each must make the journey our own.

Like the GPS in a tallship,
The trackline tells me where I have been, not what course to steer.
As it did at the huge tiller, I hope this will orient me,
Allow me to learn to steer by compass and the wind.
Full and by,
Bala is Calling.