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  • Tall Ships America

Paying Attention: A Guide to Living on Tall Ships

By Candace

[Ed. note: This is part two of Candace's three part final blog series. You can read the first part here]

An older British sailor with graying hair and a perpetually adorned tar and oil stained white button down, whom I met sailing on Picton Castle, once told me sailing is a vehicle for teaching people to pay attention. When people are learning to sail what they are really learning to do is much more important- they are absorbing their environment and learning effective ways to react. On a tall ship everyone on board is expected to be aware of everything always because the success of a ship depends on group comprehension. Paying attention is imperative to safety, cooperation, and timeliness, and it requires everyone to be on board (no pun intended). If you fail to pay attention you could lose your footing going aloft or cast off a line that keeps the mast upright. When orders are shouted from a commanding officer everyone must repeat this command so that’s clear to everyone involved what needs to be done. When you listen to these commands you are forced to decode their meaning until eventually you can anticipate your role before commands have been issued.

Paying attention is also dependent on your eyes and what you allow yourself to focus on. When you are hauling like your life depends on it, but unaware which line you are hauling and why, you are failing to pay attention. If your hauling on a brace, crank your line of sight up to the yards to make sure that you’re not being unhelpful in the vigorous tugging of your topsail halyard. The chief mate on Fair Jeanne was thoroughly amused by the tenacity at which I heaved the topsail halyard without using my eyes to recognize I had already braced the topsail. The chief mate recommended, with a subtle look of disbelief, that next time I should haul on the course brace which required much more fortitude. I suppose my time hauling on a brig like Niagara and a barque like Picton Castle had overinfluenced the levels at which I threw my weight into hauling lines. Moreover, listening helps inform you of what other crew members are doing in accordance with your individual task. You’re working with a team when you sail and forgetting this aspect of teamwork is also a sign that you’re failing to fully pay attention. Knowing what your crew is doing and why is just as important as understanding your own specific job.

Listening is also imperative when you are being instructed. Odds are, unless you have a spectacular teacher or you’re an impeccable learner like Susannah, you will not remember something the first time that you are taught something. Practice and repetitive teachings have been the key for me. Sometimes the best way to learn is by being taught multiple times and then repeating this task, until you are certain that in a high-pressure situation with limited time you can perform. This summer I have been taught by a myriad of teachers on five separate tall ships, each building on the teachings that I had received a week before. Some were excellent, patiently kneeling next to me while I struggled to tie a basic reef knot. Others assumed I knew what I was doing and spoke to me in a sailor slang to which I had to ask a series of clarifying questions just to complete a simple task. Somehow, I pieced together these separate teachings to establish a broad knowledge of what the tall ships are and how they function. Each ship taught me something that I was confused about and helped to cement concepts that I had learned on previous ships. This is an oversimplification but sometimes simple things in theory are overcomplicated in practice- To learn you must listen, to pay attention you must understand.

Touch, oddly enough, is also imperative to the structure of paying attention. The way that a specific rope feels or the way that a line is coiled can teach you a lot about its purpose. For instance, synthetic rope feels much different than rope made with natural fibers. Synthetic rope is plasticky making it more challenging to coil and causing your hands to blister much more quickly than natural fibers. This distinction is entirely dependent on your sense of touch and once you are aware of this distinction you can more quickly find these ropes. Many dock lines are synthetic because they are more difficult to break and thus safer when docking a ship that weighs several hundred tons. Another example of the implications of texture is the intricacies of a shroud. A shroud helps to hold the ship up and are what sailors hold onto when they are climbing aloft. Once I pondered about the texture of shrouds when I was on a watch on Niagara with one of the apprentices, Emma. She explained to me that thick shrouds like the ones that help secure the mainmast, consisted of several lines of wire all secured to together with a seine twine. After learning this, I ran my hand along the shroud amazed that I hadn’t realized their complexity. Texture teaches you that what you’re seeing is often purposely misleading. Tall ships are beautiful because the mariners have learned to make everything necessary for the structure of the ship simultaneously functional and aesthetic. Texture reveals what aesthetics hide and thus to pay attention to one’s environment one must learn the value of touch.

Paying attention is also about understanding your crew. On every ship that I’ve sailed on this summer there was a different social dynamic that I had to adapt to. Crews are both friends and pseudo-family to one another, often making it challenging to figure out how to situate oneself into a crew. Paying attention socially means you need to be a good crew mate. You can’t leave messes expecting other people to clean up after you or knowingly do something wrong because that would create more work for another crew member later. Staying out of the way when you need to and knowing when to step in involve knowing your crew and figuring out the best way to communicate with them. Susannah and I spent so much time together that we can communicate in a post verbal way, all Susannah must do is point at something or say one word to me and I can understand what is being asked of me. Being well attuned to the way that people communicate helps to create a cooperative and productive environment on the ship.

This summer has taught me the importance of details. Paying attention is about noticing details on a ship that seem trivial and mundane but mean a lot when they are put in comparison with the world around them. As a prospective writer, tall ships have shifted how I study my environment and helped me focus on the intricacies of my environment in a which a way that I hadn’t before. On a ship you are constantly stimulated, so it is important to shift through these feelings to try to piece together an interpretation of what is happening and what is important to pay attention to. Now that I have sailed on five tall ships across four of the Great Lakes, I have enough sensory experiences to last a lifetime. I have learned how to pay attention and that is something that I will take with me for the rest of my life.