Andthe Lady sails on

Published on Thu, Aug 5, 2004
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And the Lady sails on

by Jack Kintner

When Ivy Gwost takes the helm of the state’s replica tall ship Lady Washington she perches on the end of the tiller like a kid resting on a large branch of a favorite climbing tree. Even though the diminutive seventh-grader’s feet don’t even come close to touching the deck she’s fully in control of the 176 tons of wood, rope, tar and sailcloth known as the good ship Lady Washington, rocking gently southward from Blaine to Bellingham, her next port of call.

The 112-foot Lady Washington, with two masts, is technically a “brig,” not a “ship.” Launched in 1989, it’s modeled on the single-masted sloop Washington built in Massachusetts in 1750, later converted to a two-masted brig and re-named the Lady Washington for service in the northwest fur trade after the Revolutionary War. As the first European ship to enter Grays Harbor, it was a fitting model for a replica to be built by the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority that still operates the vessel.

Gwost, an 11-year-old Guemes Island native, is too young by five years to serve in an official capacity on the Lady Washington’s 15-person crew. Despite that she has three summers’ experience sailing on the ship along with her mother Susan who does an annual three week stint as the ship’s cook.

“My mom will be here Friday,” she said, scampering up the main companionway like a cat, barefoot like most of the crew, “but I wanted to go out sooner.”

“She was grandfathered in,” laughed Jesika Rowley, the current cook, “or maybe grandmothered. The policy now is that you have to be 16.”
For Gwost, and the other crew interviewed for this story, the main attraction is the experience itself spent in the company of a peripatetic group of adventurers from diverse backgrounds, sailing a ship on which old traditions come alive.

“It’s the sailing, all right,” said Captain Mason Marsh, who assumed command on July 2. “Most of us have read all the classic sailing literature, from Melville to O’Brian, and believe me when you’ve been aloft in the Lady during a storm you can really understand the histories, what the life was like.”

Marsh has been associated with the Lady Washington since 1994 as a crewman. He spent last winter ashore in Port Townsend studying for his captain’s license and is now discovering the difference between being on the crew and being responsible for the whole boat. It goes beyond having the only stateroom on board to himself.

“It’s amazingly different,” Marsh said, “because of the responsibility, all the things there are to worry about. I actually have fewer duties but the stress level is higher.”

Tides and docking are the two biggest concerns, Marsh said, “because with an 11-foot draught we’ll be solid in the mud when it’s low tide at many of our stops. And with docking, every time we go into port it’s different.”

As if to underscore his remarks, the wind had piped up enough to produce whitecaps by the time the Lady sailed around Eliza Island and into Bellingham Bay. Out of the south, the wind would push the boat the final eight miles towards its goal but once there would make slowing and maneuvering difficult in the narrow confines of the Bellingham marina’s guest docking area. Additionally, his keel would be within a few feet of the bottom.

Marsh would have to turn the 112-foot hull broadside to the wind, increasing the risk that it would carry him into the float he was to tie up to, crushing it and the boats tied up to it like a semi running over a cardboard box of toys.

He also needed to do it right the first time, since there would be almost no room to maneuver for a second chance against the wind. In sailor’s language, Marsh faced docking on a lee shore, his maneuvering room measured in inches.

This is not to say that conditions weren’t safe. It’s the ability of Lady Washington’s crew to take people along in real-life situations like this, to show off the boat they love so much and their learned expertise in handling her that makes being on board such a fascinating experience. It’s not without risk, Marsh explained, but its safety record is based on having a crew with solid experience in-shore and blue water (open ocean) sailing.

Firstmate and Long Island, N.Y., native Mindy Doroski has been a tall ship sailor on the east coast and through the Caribbean since 1998. Hawaii native and Oregon State University graduate Stacey Lary has an extensive background in small boat sailing and can out-pull most of the men on board. Others have equally impressive credentials, but they’re not worn on the sleeve. Their skills do the talking, and despite the potential for disaster the ship is handled with an easy and effortless grace that makes a pleasant ride for first time passengers as well as old hands.

The crews’ seamanship is one reason the Lady has become a media babe, with several recent movie and TV appearances and more to come. In July, before her annual visit to Blaine, she was chartered by the History Channel and also by Spanish Public Television for a documentary about the early explorer Malaspina. Micro-soft had her out for several days filming a sequence using state of the art video technology cameras worth $300,000 apiece.

“There’s only three of those things in the world,” said steward Michael Kellick, also a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild and a veteran of the old X Files TV series. “To get what they wanted we went through Deception Pass five or six times as they filmed us from the bridge.”

After an early cameo in the third Star Trek movie, Lady Washington’s big film break came with Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Marsh admits that aside from the charter fees it created a whole new set of Lady Washington devotees.

“Our visitors are younger, and that helps,” he said, “but the movies are an interruption in our real mission, which is to sail the boat and tell her story.”

National Public Radio and KPLU reporter John Kessler was on board for the Blaine to Bellingham trip, and his piece is scheduled to air during “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” on August 20.

Marsh is adamant about not “sugar-coating the history” of early northwest exploration. “These people did some good things and some bad things,” he said, “because they were real people.” The original Lady Washington’s mission was to trade trinkets for sea otter pelts with native tribes on Vancouver Island, which then would be traded in China for tea that would be sold back home in Boston. Atrocities occurred on both sides when Europeans traders and native tribes met, though its captain, Robert Gray, also discovered the Columbia River, sailing into its mouth in a different ship on May 7, 1792.

Marsh was on board last summer when the Lady Washington anchored in the same spot in Vancouver Island’s Friendly Cove that the ship’s namesake had done 215 years earlier. He said the feeling was almost mystical. “I want to go farther, up to Haida Gwaii (Canada’ s Queen Charlotte Islands),” he said, “and tell the natives that the last time a ship like this was here it wasn’t such a good thing, but we’re here this time to change that if we can.”

Clearly, for Marsh and the rest of the crew, sailing and teaching is far more important to them than being in the movies.

To prepare for the tricky Bellingham arrival, Marsh ordered the ship’s company into one of several possible combinations of crew shirts and then asked boatswain and gunner John Morrison to brief the crew. “Listen up!” Morrison thundered, and all hands turned attentively in his direction. “This will be tricky,” he began, as he separated out the docking procedure into its component steps.

Though Marsh later admitted to a sweaty palm and a quickened pulse, not at all helped by the presence of former crew and at least one captain watching from shore, the whole maneuver went off without a hitch, commands about tightening lines and moving the mooring bumpers being called out clearly but without yelling.

The gangway lowered, visitors began to scramble on board, led by two teenage girls eager to get to the ship’s store for tee shirts, while crew members waved at old friends and former shipmates. San Francisco native Noelle Boltwood, who joined the crew three months ago, greeted visitors at the top of the gangway, patiently answering their questions about what it’ s like to sail on a boat like this.

“It’s great fun,” she said, “and we’re going out tonight at six for three hours. Want to come along?”