The Name of Intensity
I moved into a cramped fo’c’sle bunk aboard Pride of Baltimore II the night of Sunday, July 21. With all my gear pressed between me and the bulkhead, there was barely enough room to sleep comfortably. It might have been hard if I wasn’t so tired from working all weekend during the Tall Ship Celebration: Bay City, I quickly managed to fall asleep. We turned to work at 0800, cast off lines, and were soon underway. The passage up Saginaw Bay was marked by northerly wind and two foot swells from the same direction, of course north was the course ordered- to a point. The result was a lumpy motor out of the bay. So bad, actually, we anchored in a small cove for the better part of the afternoon. Perfect for a swim call, or in my case, a nap. With the dying light, the wind had lied down enough that we could set sail out of the Bay. My wakeup came abruptly that night.
“James wake up, its 2240 and you’re needed to standby on deck. It’s very windy but I’m wearing a T-shirt”
Someone from the 8-12 was waking the 12-4 watch early to help with setting sail.
I snapped awake. “I’ll be on deck in five.”
I knew all I needed to about the conditions from what she told me. It was dark, and the wind had picked up from a favorable direction. It was likely quite chilly but I knew the hard pulls to come would be keeping me warm. I quickly buckled my rig knife around my waist, threw on my boots, pulled on a flannel, and rushed up the fo’c’sle companionway.
“Let go your buntlines, fore topsail halyard haul away!” someone called in the darkness.
“Hands to the main sheet, Peak and Throat halyard haul away!”
Commands are called out this way to provide structure in an otherwise chaotic working environment. The words gave voice to tasks I knew to expect to get Pride sailing, but in the darkness and on an unfamiliar ship, I had little idea where I ought to be. With such low visibility, the commands and callbacks serve to help one find their way as if we were a flock of bats. When all sails were set, and the deck coiled down, we quietly took the deck from the 8-12 watch.
It was a quiet watch that night, we had full sails and were close hauled on a port tack. I took the first trick at the helm and quickly found steering Pride a dream. With such a sensitive rudder, the turn of even a single spoke can be too much of an adjustment and I found myself needing to pay constant attention to my course on the compass and the star I was steering by. The wind continued to build over the course of our watch, and often great waves would crash over the bow, sending spray as far aft as the helmsman. With each wave, Pride would roll in the swell, raking her topmasts across the star-specked sky in wide rolling arcs.
Eventually, I found myself at the wheel again for the final hour as the wind built to a climax of 22 knots, putting us at 8 knots through the water.
Suddenly, the Captain was on deck. He exchanged a few muted words with Jeff, the Mate on deck, and quickly took the helm from me. Then the call came.
“Take in the Fore topsail!”
All deckhands and guest crew hurried forward and I found myself with a leechline and buntline thrust into my hands- one line for each.
“Slack in the halyard, bunt up!”
I hauled like hell, trying to take up on two lines at once and marveled at how hard it was to take in the topsail. Eventually I had to belay them and take up one at a time, to get all the remaining slack out. But in winds like that it doesn’t matter how tight the gear is hauled up. If you’re going to let the sail hang loose, it will just flap in the wind and tear itself to rags.
I turned around and suddenly notice that the next watch is already on deck. Is it time to be relieved already? Or are we gonna drop more canvas? I thought to myself. It was too dark to see the hands on my watch and I wasn’t given time to ask.
Jeff was telling the freshly awakened Bosun and officer of the 4-8 Watch of our next task.
“Sarah, up and stow the foretop. And you can take James with you.” I had stopped at just the right moment.
“James, you’re coming up with me,” said Sarah.
My heart leapt with naïve excitement. I couldn’t wait to work aloft onPpride. But she must have sensed my enthusiasm because she soon followed up, “It’s gonna move a lot. Grab a harness and let’s get going.”
Minutes later we were on the topsail yard and doing our best to flake out the sail without being launched into the murky abyss. There was no distinction between the sea and sky then. It was all a hazy bruise colored background that hung around us like dark walls. There was nothing else but the work then. Even the ship, now 100 feet or so below us, seemed detached, like a whole separate world. It was like a roller coaster, the ones that spin you as they swing back and forth in wild arcs, except there was no seatbelt nor safety net. Nothing to keep us strapped in place as we busted up the sail in a sea stow and passed the gasket around. Nothing but a strength of arm and will and a short tether climbing harness to catch us if that fails. All these thoughts flash through my mind as we clung there waiting to time our movements with the gentlest rolls, and I did my best to focus on the task at hand, taking turns holding the sail up and handing off the gasket to each other. Looking back now, it still feels more dreamlike than realistic, and I can’t remember much in the way of words that passed between us up there.
I’m a tall ship sailor by trade. I’ve done all kinds of work aloft in all kinds of weather and conditions, but the raw intensity I felt that night was unlike anything I’ve ever felt.