MINNEAPOLIS – Moonlight glinted off the rolling waves of Lake Superior and cast its soft glow on the mahogany rails and coiled ropes on deck. The wooden hull rumbled and creaked as it broke through water, a soundtrack punctuated by the occasional snap of a sail. It was 2:30 in the morning, and I was at the helm steering the majestic tall ship the Pride of Baltimore II through dark waters. The task filled me with wonder - and just a touch of fear.
Wind slapped at my face, feeling like a gale. Muscles in my arms ached from keeping a firm grip on the handles of the 5-foot-wide wheel. The ship, a faithful reproduction of a 19th-century Baltimore clipper topsail schooner, listed to port. The sense of duty weighed on me as I considered not only its size (100 feet long) and the height of its sails (107 feet) but also the 17 other people on board. Fortunately, I was not alone at my task.
On hand was second mate Will McLean, who was the officer on watch and a member of the paid crew - as opposed to the handful of us who’d paid for the privilege of helping sail this slice of American naval history. He stepped out of the rear cabin, where the ship’s charts are kept, and told me to change course. I repeated his instructions - “changing course to 2-7-0” - and began turning the wheel. To my surprise, the ship dipped farther to port. I gave McLean a concerned look; he just smiled and told me to keep turning.
There was no gale, and no danger to the ship. I was exhilarated.
Who would have thought that a landlubber like me, whose only real experience with sailing ships was through books and a vivid imagination, would find himself standing watch, raising sails, climbing the mast and coiling the lines of a tall ship?
The sailing trip my wife and I took last July across Lake Superior - from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, to Duluth during its Tall Ships Festival - began last January when I discovered a buried e-mail from an old contact at the Pride of Baltimore II. The subject line said, “Come aboard.” Until then, I hadn’t known it was possible to join the crew.
At the ship’s website, www.pride2.org, my wife and I filled out application forms for guest crew and were later interviewed via phone by the captain, who assured us that this would be no cruise, but a working vacation. As guest crew members who would pay $500 apiece for the five-day trip, we would not be required to perform tasks that made us uncomfortable, such as climbing the rigging, but we would stand watch, help keep the galley clean, raise sails and perform other tasks necessary for the smooth running of a traditional wooden sailing vessel.
The deal sounded good to us - and we passed muster with the captain - so last July, my wife and I drove to Duluth and hopped a bus for a 10-hour ride to Sault Ste. Marie. We spent one night in a hotel before heading to the port, where we checked out two other tall ships at the dock (as guest crew, we had VIP armbands that gave us access) and then boarded the Pride II.
We carried our duffel bags, sleeping bags and a small backpack below to stow in our tiny cabin, one of only three reserved for guests, just off the galley. By the time we got back on deck, we were already underway. Weather reports indicated a storm was headed our way, and the captain wanted to leave before it hit.
Being under sail was a strange sensation, somewhere between a ride at Disneyland and sailing on a ship straight out of the history books. The stainless steel cranks and cleats used on modern sailboats were nowhere to be found. Instead, wherever I looked I saw the fittings of a bygone era: wooden pulleys, wooden belaying pins wrapped in thick rope, wood on the deck, the cabins, the rails, the masts. Although there are modern updates to the ship from the 1812 original - navigation, electricity and two diesel engines help keep her safe - an authentic sense of history thrives.
A few hours later, we and the other four guest crew members got an introduction to the ship and our duties from McLean. Sitting around the gleaming table in the galley - which is rimmed on all four sides so dishes won’t slide off when the ship lists - we listened as he detailed safety procedures, daily routines and our assigned tasks. Meals were served at 7:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Everyone would take a turn to stand watch. My wife and I learned that we had the 12-to-4 slot, which meant that we’d be on duty from midnight to 4 a.m., and from noon to 4 p.m.
Our watch was fast approaching, since it was almost 10 p.m., so we gave up on exploring the ship to get a few hours of rest before taking our turn on deck. Amid the excitement of being newly aboard, falling asleep that night was about the most difficult thing we had to do the entire trip.
At 11:30 p.m., a knock on our door woke us up. We grabbed a cup of coffee (always on hand) and headed to the deck to join the others on watch - an officer and a couple of paid crew members. The officer gave out assignments, from taking the helm, to checking the bilges for water coming aboard, to deciding when we would heave the lines to raise a sail.
After each shift, we had eight hours before duty called again. We filled that with sleeping, eating (the meals were delicious) and passing the time. Sometimes when I wandered into the galley, the cook would be quietly playing her lap harp. Other times, my wife and I would wander the ship, taking photographs, witnessing the curvature of the Earth on the horizon or watching the occasional ship pass by.
It was a joy just to catch a moment in the sun as others kept the ship asail. Capt. Jan Miles might be on deck calling for a certain sail to be adjusted, and at first, I wouldn’t have a clue what he was talking about. But after just a short time aboard, knowledge of this complex sailing vessel began to sink in. Because the staff crew truly did most of the work, there were many moments when I could simply enjoy the push and pull of wind and water as the ship cut across the vast lake.
With clear sailing and steady winds, we eased between the Apostle Islands ahead of schedule. So we dropped anchor there to pass time before we would sail into Duluth with seven other tall ships, one of the highlights of the city’s Tall Ships Festival.
Staff crew members took the opportunity to shine the ship, floating an inflatable dinghy around the outside, cleaning windows and wiping down the wood. But they also found time to dive into Lake Superior, swimming with abandon. I took a dip myself, but one dive into the frigid water made me scurry up the rope ladder to a towel.
Though floating in calm waters amid the beautiful scenery of the Apostles was memorable, nothing could compare to the thrill of parading with other tall ships into Duluth’s harbor.
Throngs of people watched the ships arrive. A crew member sparked a cannon and it let off a smoky blast. As I looked out at the crowds and the other ships behind us, I felt full of pride as a crew member of the Pride of Baltimore II.
But I was also a little sad, not quite ready to return to dry land.
CREWING ON A TALL SHIP
The Pride of Baltimore II has three guest-crew cabins that sleep two, just off the galley. Guest crew members share a bathroom with a small shower. The cabins are private and comfortable but compact. Two bunks come with mattresses and linens. My wife and I used a small cabinet as a bedside table. The information packet we received at home suggested we bring sleeping bags in case we wanted to sleep on deck; we found them useful as extra covering at night.
The food - prepared by the cook - was delicious and ample, and diners made sure that there would be enough food remaining for the crew members currently on watch.
The Pride II is taking the summer off as the Tall Ships Festival moves to the West Coast. Tall ships, including the Pride II, will be on the East Coast in 2015 and will return to the Great Lakes and Duluth in 2016. For information on guest crewing, go to www.pride2.org. To explore options on other historic reproduction tall ships, check out websites including www.barkeuropa.com, www.dutchtallships.com and www.sailingshipadventures.com.
Eddie Thomas: ethomasstartribune.com