The U.S Brig Niagara is a prevailing vessel, a Leviathan of ships. With apparent ease, it manages to move its one-hundred-sixty-two tons through the waters of the Great Lakes, disregarding human conceptions of buoyancy. Her sails patiently await the summer winds, but require no prompting when the prodigal wind returns, propelling her forward and reminding the voyagers on her decks that her loveliness and strength should never be undercut.
When I boarded Niagara for the second time, I stepped out of my cloak of introversion for a moment to introduce myself to the new trainees and reacquaint myself with the crew. Familiar faces greeted me, welcoming me back onboard, before they were unceremoniously whisked away to prep for the upcoming voyage to Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. With crew scrambling aloft and the chief mate shouting commands to get the ship ready for departure, I tried to remain out of the way as I waited for my hammock assignment. The crew mustered as irritated grey cumulonimbus clouds signaled an impending downpour, mimicking my fears of reembarking on Niagara. How would I cope with life onboard- the hammocks and their lack of personal space, inconsistent sleep patterns, physically demanding labor, bipolar weather, and constant social interactions?
The first night of sleep was a little rough. I struggled to relax, making the sleeping process futile, but eventually my mind turned-off. Wakeups were at 8 a.m. Jennifer went out of her way to make me a comforting bowl of oatmeal for breakfast with a bit of coco-powder and almonds. Throughout my days aboard, I was thankful for her willingness to accommodate my vegan diet, even going as far as to offer me recipes. At muster I was sorted into Bravo watch which was the same watch I had previously on Niagara. Around 9 a.m., approximately fifty day-sailors boarded the ship consisting of mostly middle-aged and elderly people, with a few children scattered amongst them. General quarters were called, and I ran to the starboard side to pull my fender up through a porthole.
It was an eight-hour sail up to Sturgeon Bay from Green Bay. During that time, I completed my first Ballantine coil after hilariously floundering in front of all the day-sailors, got the leg workout of the century pushing the capstan, stood lookout, gave myself glorious blisters hauling lines, and cleaned spider webs. Bonus- saw the biggest spider of my life. I named him Kyle; he lives in a porthole next to the starboard cannon. We arrived into Sturgeon Bay around five and I made it my prerogative to put my bare feet in fresh green grass. There’s truly nothing quite so soothing as soft grass after time spent sailing. Overall, I had a very productive day, and many of the reservations I experienced going through the Welland Canal early last month were not replicated. The mood of the ship had switched from survival to instruction, and I felt instant comradery with everyone.
Our race to Kenosha began with Captain Cusson riding his bike around the deck. I couldn’t stop smiling, his joy was infectious. It was all hands, as fenders and dock lines were taken up, the cutter was hoisted aboard, and we motored out of Sturgeon Bay the next morning. We set the royals (which are the highest sails on the mainmasts and foremast), and I went aloft for my first time since July 4th.
The last time I went aloft I panicked and asked to return to deck. This time, my hands tingled on deck and I swallowed incessantly, but I pulled myself up and began to climb. As I climbed the shrouds again, I told myself to stay focused on the commands given to me- three points of contact, step out further, clip into the safety line behind you, untie this line, feed the bite through here, drop the sail, make a gasket coil, go back to deck. The view was spectacular, and I was proud of myself for climbing back up. I was completely capable. Inferiority, words of self-doubt, and thoughts of giving up were replaced by a certainty in my own ability. Moreover, when I was moving onto Niagara, I had detractively joked to Wilmer that I was going to be useless. After furiously sweating a line with another trainee, the bosun complimented me. Wilmer who was standing next to me smiled at me and said, “And you said you were going to be useless.” My AB Sarah overheard him and said that she had seen me working hard all day and I was far from useless. Having the validation of the crew was so helpful for my confidence. I was improving and people were noticing.
Some highlights of this journey were Captain Cusson sitting on the monkey deck , wearing the helm hat (a magnificent purple derby hat with a feather), while the chief mate played her guitar. The captain then proceeded to lay down on the deck to take pictures of the sails. He followed this endeavor by taking photos of me at lookout. I will also happily remember Bravo duck and the great watch that I was on. Second mate was simultaneously authoritative and a big goofball. When we had our watch musters, he insisted that the yellow rubber duck must be present before we could begin. Second mate also shared his Oreos with us, which he called little circles of happiness and went out of his way to make sure I was doing okay. The rest of the professional crew on my watch were incredibly helpful, teaching me about different types of sails and where they were located, knots, and offering encouragement in whatever way they could.
My second time on Niagara was monumentally better than the first. The Welland Canal will certainly live on in my mind as a horror story, but I no longer attach that insanity of that transit with Niagara herself. Niagara is a special ship with an incredible crew dedicated to sail training and creating a welcome, open environment.