• Tall Ships America

On Challenging Yourself

Updated: Jul 8, 2019

The past few days on Niagara have been the most physically and mentally demanding days of my life. I was immediately thrown into sail training- going aloft to tie down sails, coiling miles of rope, cleaning the galley, hauling lines, and pushing the capstan. It was overwhelming, to put it simply. Being on a tall ship like Niagara was organized chaos, every person completing different tasks in the same small space in order to keep the ship running perfectly. I was seriously impressed by the amount of knowledge everyone had about sailing and how passionate they were about being on Niagara.

Monday, July 1st was my first day sailing. We left in the afternoon and joined the first race to Buffalo. The wind was blowing, so we released all the sails and sailed away from Toronto. As we raced toward Buffalo, the Toronto skyline transitioned between soft yellow and pale blue, making the billowy sails look like archaic scrolls. I was helping haul lines and coil rope, which is the easiest job on the ship, but I still managed to do a mediocre job at it. After a few days my coiling got better and, with some guidance from different crew members and trainees, I am starting to learn the most important knots and how to make fast (secure a rope to a pin). It felt good to be useful on board even though I had no idea what I was doing. It’s incredibly gratifying to hoist sails and see all of our efforts actualized. Once, when I noted how incompetent I felt, one of the crew members, Manny, stopped me and asked if I had a pair of hands that worked. When I said that I did, he explained that’s all I needed. That, and all the effort and energy you can muster. You just need have a willingness to work and to listen.

I was woken up on Tuesday at three A.M. for Bravo watch. We were quickly thrown into work. First, I did a safety check with the O.S. (Operation’s specialist), Amanda. She showed me how to check the bilges to ensure they didn’t have too much water in them. The process essentially involves using a flashlight to shine into specific holes in the floor to see the very bottom of the ship. After the brig check, we went on deck to help furl the sails. It was raining and almost impossible to see but crew were pulling lines and going aloft to tie down the sails. Going aloft is mostly a free climb until you clip into the rigging when you get where you want to go in the rigging, so I was a bit freaked out, but I climbed up and helped tie down the sails down. It was amazing up there. You can see for miles, it’s exhilarating. It was one of my favorite memories from my time on Niagara.

I can’t lie, the work was very physically demanding and my whole body was sore for several days. After pushing the capstan (a large wheel that several crew push around in a circle to leverage heavy items), my thighs were angry at me and every time I walked up and down the stairs to the galley I wanted to cry. I slept much better with an eye mask and the Niagara crew worked me so hard that I typically feel asleep as soon as I crawled into my hammock.

I felt cranky during my time at Niagara. The sleeping I did was sporadic and irregular. One day I worked from six A.M. to three A.M the next day. People kept trying to make sure I was okay, which I appreciated, but I also resented it because I was a bit angry at myself for not enjoying everything more. I believe I would’ve loved everything if I wasn’t so exhausted. People kept telling Susannah and I that we had joined a very challenging journey since it involved a transit through the Welland Canal. It was not an easy introduction to sailing. In order to travel through the canal, we had to turn all the yards inwards which took an entire day to prepare. It was a lot of pulling and sweating the lines (a method to create tension in the lines), and then tying things down. It was one of the hardest workouts I’ve ever done. I’m going to be the most in shape I’ve ever been when this summer is over.

The Welland Canal consisted of eight huge tanks that filled up with water to move the ships to higher elevations. It was our job to make sure that the ship did not grind up against the side of the canal. There were three lines attached to the ships to help keep it straight, and fenders (huge plastic inflatable balls) to be a barrier between the ship and the canal wall. It was a lot of pulling and digging and holding, which was challenging, especially because I was being cooked by the sun.

Here are some helpful hints and tips I have to offer after living on Niagara for three days. Duck! Duck like your very life depends on it! The ceilings down below are about five feet tall. I almost gave myself a concussion several times banging my head into the ceiling. I have seen several techniques to avoid hitting your head on the ceiling. One involves crossing your hands behind your back and walking forward like a duck, another is to tilt your upper body to one side until you look like a glorified bendy straw, and the last is to crawl everywhere you go. All hilarious, but necessary, to avoid feeling like an idiot for banging your head in front of people.

Hint number two- Be prepared. Set your hammock up early so you don’t wake people up when you come into the galley in the middle of the night. Sleep in the clothes you want to wear the next day, so you don’t have to fight for time in the heads (bathrooms) in the morning. If you wear contacts and glasses keep them in an easily accessible place, not buried deep in your sea bag (a huge canvas sack to hold crew possessions). I had a lot of problems maneuvering my sea bag, so do your best to separate important items to the top of your sea bag.

Constantly reapply sunscreen. You will be exposed to the sun all day and you will cook, so protect yourself. Talk to as many people as you can. The more people you talk to the more you will feel like you’re a part of the crew. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. The more help you ask for, the more you can learn.

The last advice I have is to stay positive and do your best. Being on a ship like Niagara where almost everything is supported by manpower, is exhausting. I started to miss land a lot. I missed the trees and personal space. I didn’t know if I could last, but I persevered. If you are uncomfortable or overexerted, tell someone and take a minute. My last day on Niagara was during the Fourth of July. We were aloft bussing the sails and the safety line behind my back was around my knees instead of my hips. I felt extremely unbalanced, the heat was deadly, and my feet started to wobble from overexertion. There was a moment where all I could think was “This is it; this is how I die.” Perhaps a bit dramatic, but I didn’t trust my physical strength. I bussed one sail and asked to go back down. I climbed down and went below to drink some water and cry it out. Everyone was super understanding. The boson gave me a hug and the chief mate came down to make sure I was okay. I told them all I was fine; I just needed a minute. After I cried, I felt better and ten minutes later I was back to work on deck. I think the emotion occurred from a culmination of a lack of sleep, physically demanding work, lack of personal space, and energy sucking heat.

Denis Sullivan sailing by

I don’t want it to seem like I didn’t enjoy myself because I did, it was just a difficult adjustment. I saw gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, jumped off the ship into two separate Great Lakes, met amazing people, ate some wonderful vegan food thanks to the ever-accommodating cook Ian, and had a truly incomparable workout. I know that my hardships on Niagara will not be indicative of the rest of the summer, and that this voyage was exceptionally arduous. I believe I can handle anything now. I am ready for the challenge.


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