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Seven Days Between the Mast and the Sea

Chapter 1: If you can’t buy a ticket, volunteer..

But first, “that” moment which will stick in my mind forever…
When my wife Lori and I go to Denny’s, we have dessert first. So it is fitting, that I serve dessert first here as well.
Let me take you to the moment that defined this sailing adventure aboard the good and tall ship Hawaiian Chieftain. It happened on the first day’s sailing during my first watch. We were sailing about 2 miles off the Sonoma coast, between Black Point and Stewarts Point, heading north.

The Hawaiian Chieftain’s sister tall ship, the Lady Washington was a few miles ahead in the fog, on a course that would take her across our bow. She had changed course to the northeast, to get shelter from robust headwinds from the north. The Captain told a story that described the Lady Washington making no headway under slightly more robust winds even with the throttles firewalled.

“Lady”, as she was oft referred to, left Pier 40 in San Francisco, an hour or so ahead of the Hawaiian Chieftain. We were delayed due to a hydraulic leak in the controls. While most of us crew and passengers had a hearty breakfast of pancakes, sausage and appropriate gluten-free entry for Captain Morrison, the engineers were searching for parts to fix a split hydraulic line. Myron and Jaz, the engineers for the passage to Fort Bragg, got the hydraulics repaired and bleed in about an hour, then we left to chase the ‘Lady, up the coast as far as Fort Bragg.

image - looking up mizzen mast to Golden Gate Bridge. from deck of teh Hawwain Chieftain.
The “Lady” was to port in Eureka, a few days after the Hawaiian Chieftain made Noyo Harbor, near Fort Bragg, CA. Normally the ships try to sail together so as to offer “Battle Cruises” and “Adventure Sales between the education programs that are core to the mission at Gray’s Historical Harbor.

Both ships call Aberdeen, Washington home port, but spend most of their time sailing to 50 or so ports between Canada and San Diego, sharing how the first ships from the new United States, rounded Cape Horn to build trading ties with indigenous peoples and China.

Captain Morrison wanted to leave with the most favorable tide, which was around 6:30Am. Both ships sailing out of San Francisco Bay makes for a nice morning visual. The hydraulic leak kept us dockside as the Lady Washington, navigated away and quickly out of site. On a ship, function and safety always prevail over the “show”.

iimage bonita lighthouse
Fortunately actual repair was relatively easy since the break was close to a distribution block. As usual, bleeding the air was the real pain, especially a 40 foot, four line system. That’s a lot of potential air to bleed out. These pressured lines pass the throttle and transmission signals from the helm to the engine room. No pressure, no engine or transmission control. Getting all the air out of the six feet of line in my Pontiac Fiero’s clutch system took longer than the full repair by Myron and Jaz.

On our way out, Captain Morrison regaled us with stories of the dangerous waters just outside of San Francisco Bay. In particular, as we crossed under the Golden Gate Bridge, “JB” as the captain preferred to be called, pointed to the south west at the “Potato Patch”. So called because the sea bottom causes turbulent seas at certain tides. The resulting confused waves would cause early sailing freighters that mistakenly cut cross the “patch” to spill cargo stored on their decks.

image A Watch Luke and David off Tomales Bay
The area was named the “Potato Patch” because smaller craft would sail out into the dangerous waters and recover what cargo was still floating to sell at markets. Much of this was vegetables, and in particular, potatoes coming south from Oregon and Washington ports. Our destination was the west bound shipping traffic lanes which would get us past Bonita Lighthouse where we would start to turn north.

Six hours later, my lookout position was on the starboard side of the quarter deck. The helm is on the quarter deck which offers a good view forward of the ship. Forward of the main deck, in front of the galley and extending to the bow, is the raised foredeck from where the bowsprit reaches out to stay the masts. To the rear of the quarter deck, and a few steps higher is the “poop” deck. Over the week aboard I heard two stories about what is meant by “poop” deck, but more on that later.

At this point, being on deck requires my foulies as water is breaking over the bow. What I didn’t spend of passage, went to acquiring the weather gear referred to as your “foulies”. Visibility is about a mile and a half, ending in thick fog. Where thrashing gray-blue waters ends, soft gray bowl reaches over and around us back to thrashing gray and blue. Someone made the “needle in the haystack” comment, but when it comes to ships and fog, needles don’t collide and sink.

Baggywrinkes sail protect images topsail gaff rigged Hawaiian Chieftain
Unlike the passengers who volunteered to take watches and stand by the helm, I was a full crew member. Although only volunteer, I read and signed the ship’s articles, wore a safety harness, and was expected to do whatever the Captain Morrison ordered. I was seaman #10 and was expected to count out my number in an emergency.

Watch duty was part of my schedule from the very beginning. I was part of Watch C. Our three person team was assigned watch between 12 to 4. Watch meant steer the ship, look out for hazards, log navigational progress and check ship’s systems, the later two, hourly duties. There were also chores which all watches had to do. Watch repeated every 12 hours.

Watch C was lead by Patty, the future Captain-in-training at the helm. Daisy, the Bosun’s mate and myself are on lookout and doing various chores. We are large and in charge of the boat somewhere south of Black’s Point. Daisy is the port lookout and I am on the starboard side. A few passengers and crew are also on deck, as well is the Captain, all looking for the Lady Washington. Myron was on the foghorn to alert others that we were out there somewhere.

B Watch in moderate, building seas Hawaiian Chieftain

The Hawaiian Chieftain was running under her diesels, about 3 miles off the coast on the way to Noyo Harbor. California’s shape juts out into the Pacific Ocean, blocking the wind from the north. Being closer in allows the boats to make better headway when heading north. The Lady Washington was not making much progress due to the 20mph headwind and her design.

The “Lady” has a full keel and her masts are square rigged and taller than the topsail gaff rigging of the Hawaiian Chieftain. The Hawaiian Chieftain is also a shoal draft design, three short keels and a flat bottom. With a lot less drag below and shorter masts, the Hawaiian Chieftain can do better than double than the Lady Washington under power.

So we are looking for this big sailing ship to cross our bow, somewhere in the foggy distance. The sea is rough enough that I had one arm wrapped around a shroud, to help steady against the pitch and roll the sea state was producing. “Master and Commander’s” opening scene was on my mind. The one where the officer of the deck “Beats to Quarter” after a short discussion about whether he saw the enemy or not.

Breaking Seas and Fog Image Hawaiian Chieftain

Then it happened. As I scanned the starboard quarter, a shadow briefly darkened the fog about a 1 point of the starboard bow. Right as I was going to say it, fog lifted for a second to reveal the Lady Washington, safe enough away, still heading northeast. As I shouted, “Lady Washington, One Point off the Starboard Bow”, the fog wrapped her back into a fading shadow and she was gone.

We didn’t sea another boat till the next morning as we came upon a urchin diver just outside Noyo Harbor.

The second coolest moment was on the early AM watch. That is for a following chapter…