The Nathaniel Bowditch cleaved and slipped through the heaving black barrows of the North Atlantic as they glistened with hot sunlight.
The Nathaniel Bowditch cleaved and slipped through the heaving black barrows of the North Atlantic as they glistened with hot sunlight. The sky was an immense white-blue dome, an attractive and heartwarming void, summited by that blazing gem which is the sun. Seagulls soared and drifted across the warm, sun-bleached canvas of the lower heavens. White bubbles swirled on the dark water that caressed the ship’s waist.
The entire Windjammer Fleet was out with us that day. The fleet was a multitude of wooden schooners, hailing from a broad range of east coast nautical history. These boats were small cruise-ships of a sort, charging passengers for weeklong tours of the coast and such. I was apprenticing on the Nathaniel Bowditch. She was built as a racing yacht in the ‘20s, which the crew and myself were particularly glad of on that day; the day of the schooner race.
These boats were living creatures. The other vessels were near us upon the sea, and as they trotted over the waves they nodded gracefully, pennants slithering and shimmering; yet for all their grace, their pounding prows exuded power and strength, creating an overall image of majesty. A vessel tacked before us, leaning in our direction menacingly with its proud sails full and curving. The experience of seeing a schooner sail within a stone’s throw of your own is impossible to recreate in video, photography or writing. I will say that it cracks a grin in the face of anyone who has a beating heart. The opposing passengers jeered at us cheerfully. We were all of us intoxicated by the display of so many great vessels on the move. Someone was beating a drum on their schooner. Yeah, I understood. It worked.
There was a cool air rising from the ocean that smelled of brine and seaweed. The foresails flapped and smacked with every tack and the blocks banged. The lines creaked as wind filled her sails.
As I walked the deck every footfall of my bare feet was a kiss with the warm, striated timbers, and the soft tar between. I excitedly chatted with the deckhands about how we could bring the Bowditch to victory. She had a rare sort of sail, known as a fisherman’s sail. Its management is somewhat of a hassle and the captain rarely raised it. That day though, the Bowditch would fly all six of her sails. We brought out the fisherman’s sail, heavy folded piece of canvas that it was, stained somewhat with mold and grime. I enjoyed carrying that sail. It was thick and strong, one of the Bowditch’s muscles. We hoisted it, heaving on hard lines, the sail’s sturdy ligaments. The movement of making off the oiled cord on the leaden belay pin felt like the satisfaction of a bodily need. Under, behind, across-and-over, behind, across-and-under, behind; flip the loop into existence, pull it over the pin, line segments beautifully parallel, and cinch it tight. Coil, coil, coil. Hang.
As my eyes were nourished by the assembly of vessels that plied the sea the Bowditch’s sails became slack. We trimmed in the fore and the main with mighty heaves. It was futile as the whole fleet became becalmed. The boats still carried on with the momentum they had, but before long the water became glassy. The sky was sunny and still. I grabbed an oar from one of the skiffs and leaned over the cap-rail of the boat’s waist, on the far side of the vessel from all the competition. I was hidden behind the cabin house. I started rowing for all I was worth, clearly enthusiastic about the race. Another deckhand joined me. We didn’t seem to speed up the vessel, but it was the thought that counted.
The calm lasted for a good long while and I was wondering if this race would ever see its conclusion. I was rather disappointed. To the windward I saw recreational sailing sloops bobbing alongside the race, no more than half a mile distant, and beyond that a stony and pine covered strip of land. A black band developed on the windward horizon and grew into approaching storm clouds. Of course, Captain Dorr was cognizant of the squall’s approach before anyone else on the boat was. He yelled for us to slacken all the sails, and perhaps to strike the fisherman’s and topsail. As the crew and I rushed about to do so a line came hurtling across the waves towards our position; the far side of that perfectly straight line was all black and riffled water, with a corresponding sheet of black cloud above. Before I could unmake a jib sheet the squall-line slammed into the farthest sloop, then the next, knocking them to the side and violently luffing their sails. Instants later the squall-line struck the Bowditch. Her sleek sails were too sensitive to that heaven-sent ATP and she stumbled onto her side from the surge of new energy. Never have I seen a boat of that size heel so steeply (except for in a painting on the wall of a seafood restaurant in my hometown which I found particularly captivating years prior). The passengers stumbled and grasped what they could for support. A folding chair, among other items, was nearly lost over the side as the sea rushed in through the Bowditch’s scuppers and claimed a good foot of deck. Being on that hulking wooden construct, the very ground beneath my feet, tons and tons of wood and iron, as it bucks and accelerates towards a roll, on the heaving black, freezing and bottomless sea that teems with mindless creatures, miles from shore, was the sort of experience that typically only comes through outlandish dreams and nightmares. Our trusty pilot must have fallen off of the wind, because the severity of the heel relented after that minute of sheer adrenaline.
The race was back on! Sails were trimmed, sails were tacked. We were her neurons. There is nothing I would have rather been. The Bowditch bucked and crashed on the dark rolling waves, punching her prow through with bursts of exploding salt spray. As she gained momentum she stabilized, channeling her energy into forward speed.
The cook came up from his galley, surveying the scene like a meerkat. He wiped his hands with a rag, muscled forearms rippling. From under his bushy walrus moustache he informed those nearby in his old-timey northeastern accent;
“Those are called mammary clouds. Tells you what kind of people meteorologists are”.
As we sailed along it came to our attention that the fisherman’s sail was snagged up in the fore lazy jacks. One of the deckhands played the hero. He scuttled up the ratlines without a harness, then walked out on the fore-gaff, holding lines for support as he freed up the fisherman’s sail. It was an awesome sight, and I envied him that chance to go aloft. That sail required a great deal of fussing, for every time we tacked the foot of the sail had to be raised up and over the gaff and all its lines, so it could be dropped down on the other side, as well as needing to be trimmed appropriately, in its strange way. The sheet was made off on the leeward side of the ship, towards the rear. Someone had to – I’m sure there was some term for this – grab the sheet and throw their weight into it to create a bit of slack so that the other sailor could pull that slack through the belay pin. With this fisherman’s sail we were barely heavy enough to bring its sheet down when we jumped up on it from the deck. We were heavy enough though, and the ship functioned beautifully.
Terminology seems like a big part of sailing wooden ships. However, once you’ve sailed them for a day, at the least, and you have an understanding of the ship’s workings, it’s only natural for terms to fall into place for all the ship’s pieces. In fact, knowing the terminology is the path of least resistance. It would be much harder to sail that boat without having a distinct name for all its pieces. Make no mistake; though the rig and other details of a wooden schooner may look complicated and excessive, they all serve a clear function. The schooner Nathaniel Bowditch, like most other wooden sailing ships, had only the bare necessities to get such a volume of storage space from point A to point B. Form follows function, so apparently said function isn’t given easily by the laws of physics. I was eager to learn the terminology for every anatomical structure of the ship, and a good-natured, goateed 18 year old was my man for that goal. From what I gathered he had a good deal of experience in sailing, and he sure didn’t seem as young as 18.
“Get [such and such] tie” he said.
“Where is it stored?” I asked.
“The line locker.” I went straight to the great wooden lidded box against the cap-rail, removed the lid and found the tie. I brought it to my mentor, realizing that no one had ever told me what a line locker was. Then he said
“Guess what? I just made that term up. I don’t know what we would call that box.” We both understood how nautical terminology worked. I had a great appreciation for its role, and how it made the experience of sailing so much easier to describe, and the process so much more effective. I enjoyed having that knowledge very much; regretfully I’ve forgotten at least half of it. Would it come back to me if I started sailing a schooner again? Probably.
The sun reemerged, warming the deck and brightening the sails of a multitude of enormous, gamboling sailboats. The Bowditch was taking the lead, as we approached a massive bridge spanning an expanse of seawater. The schooners were to proceed beneath this bridge. As the Bowditch approached I was amazed that she was expected to clear the thing. As she passed beneath I was almost sure that the pennant would clip the bridge. It did not, and passed fluttering beneath the bridge, so deep above us, bringing the height of the masts and the speed of our vessel into sharp relief. Victory was ours, and the previous year’s winners motored their skiff to us in humility to hand off the trophy; an ornate metal pitcher. The honor of displaying the trophy in the galley belonged to the Bowditch until the next schooner race, a year later. Sweet victory! Now if only I could be sure that my life would return me to the crew of a great wooden sailing vessel.