Crew wanted for tall ship replica Lady Washington

Published on Thu, Jul 31, 2008 by Jack Kintner & Kathleen Hernandez

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Crew wanted for tall ship replica Lady Washington

By Jack Kintner & Kathleen Hernandez

As the Lady Washington left Drayton Harbor on Monday morning for their next stop in Bellingham, skipper Ryan Meyer reflected on last week’s visit to Blaine, the first since 2004.

“It was a good one,” he said, “we got good numbers, but it was still a nice relaxed pace.”

Locals could not only get an up close and personal look at a genuine 110-foot square-rigger, even if it is technically a brig (two square-rigged masts) and not a ship (three or more all square-rigged), but had several opportunities to go out on the replica of the first American boat to ply these waters. They even had the chance to engage in a mock sea battle where the boat’s excellent sailing qualities shine.

“These cannons are big enough to start car alarms and break windows,” said chief gunner Sam (for Samantha) Riggs, her eyes beginning to glow a bit, “and they’re just three-pounders. Can you imagine what it was like to be on a British ship of the line with three decks filled with over 120 guns ten times this size?”

The original Lady Washington was built on the east coast in the 18th century and later was sought out by merchants eager to exploit the North American fur trade in the Pacific, based on its success as a privateer, or a privately owned vessel commissioned to prey on enemy shipping (in this case during the Revolutionary War).

“They knew they’d need a handy and maneuverable boat up here,” Meyer said, “with all the islands and the lack of a reliably strong wind as compared to the eastern seaboard. Those are the same qualities that make for a successful privateer, and she was an ideal choice. When we have the wind (anywhere from 25 to 40 knots, much more than most modern sailors in small boats are comfortable with) she sails really well.”

The Lady, as its crew likes to call her, sails in company with the slightly smaller but faster Hawaiian Chieftan, a steel-hulled topsail ketch used in Hawaii as a coastal freighter and built on plans that also date back to the days of square-rigged sail.

Out of the many that show interest, Meyer said, a surprising number say they to want to stay on board when the boat leaves. Indeed, sailing away on a ship that appears to be about 90 percent romance and relaxation has more than enough appeal to draw people’s interest even when it means leaving the comfort of Blaine.

So what’s it like to do that? We interviewed several crew members in addition to Meyer as the Lady made her way south from Blaine to Bellingham. Though they all said that they really love working on the boat, their days are filled with the hard work of sailing and maintaining a ship in long days that begin at 8 a.m. and may not end until 10 p.m.
Their days end in a bunk that, except for very senior crew, is all the personal space they’re allowed. Still, that’s a luxury compared to the old days of sailing in that at least no one else is sleeping in your bunk when you’re out on watch.

Making port usually means relaxing but that’s when the crew dons costumes for the new round of visitors waiting impatiently at the foot of the gangway for a close look at what also serves as your home for your three to six month commitment. Imagine camping out near the check stands at Cost Cutter and you’ll get the idea.

Most of the eight paid senior officers are men, including captain Meyer, chief mate Rob Mizer, boatswain Dave “Rocky” Bonner, engineer Matte “Elmo” Gowen, cook Andrew “Skook” Andersen and purser Tim Schneider. An exception is education coordinator Holly Couling, 27, who has well over a year’s experience on the Lady and, in her current hitch, has been on board since May. She spent much of the seven hour trip instructing the other, newer deckhands on how to respond to commands directing them to trim (pull in) or let (slacken) the many lines that set and trim the sails. On a sailboat, the crew is as vital a part of the power plant as the throttle and valves in the engine of a powered craft. One cannot just sit and watch, and for safety’s sake commands must be carried out immediately and correctly.

Toward the end of the trip she and Mizer led the crew through setting two new sails called royals, the uppermost sails on both masts and used mostly in light air.

Once the sail was bent onto the spar, the entire apparatus was raised by halyards through the confusing thicket of lines and set at the tops of the main and foremast without anyone ever leaving the deck, an impressive display of seamanship while underway. At other times, when setting or furling sails, the crew scampers up the ratlines – the ropes that allow them to climb up the mast – like homesick angels.

Despite the work, long hours, little personal space and almost no privacy, the romance is still a big part of the love these people have for the sailing.

Riggs, who fills the eighth paid position, said that the best moments are when the engine dies and the boat’s powered just by sail.

“Gunning is exciting,” she said, “but sailing lifts your heart.”

The balance shifts as crew arrive and depart, the numbers sometimes dominated by women and other times by men. “With a lot of younger guys on board you can get to feeling a little like Wendy out with the lost boys,” Riggs joked, “but it always works. The primary concern is getting along, working together, and people who can’t do that usually don’t want to be here anyway.”

Many of the crew have a background in performance theater and drama, and indeed they spent a good deal of time in costume, playing the parts of 18th-century sailors on a voyage of discovery to a place that was as remote then as the moon is for us today.

“The common thread we share [as women on this boat],” said several of the women crew in a girls-only confab in the galley after breakfast, “is the real drama of doing this, of our desire to accomplish the seemingly impossible, our willingness to wear the same costume day after day, to work hard and long hours for no pay and with little or no privacy.”
“It’s like sailing with 16 or more of your favorite cousins,” said Erika “Bilgey” Berg, a chemical oceanography student at the University of Washington and someone who has lived aboard a sailboat since she was a child in Hawaii.

Though Berg seems a natural fit, sometimes the crew comes from surprising quarters. Purser Tim Schneider, who Riggs said she welcomed aboard “as the one who keeps me from being the oldest person in the crew,” came from a corporate background with Cingular. After a paid passage on another tall ship he took the required two-week crew training and orientation last November and joined the crew in February of this year. The Lady’s season runs 12 months, but from late October through May she’s based in southern California.

Meyer encouraged people to apply if interested, as there is always a need for people genuinely interested in coming aboard.

“No experience is necessary because we train you. We’re always looking for good reliable crew, as well as people with a skill, some kind of mechanical experience, electrical or as a shipwright, or cooking. Tell people to call the 800 number and talk to Inez.”

Once contact has been made and a general application is filled out, a crew prospect must undergo a two-week training at their own expense, normally $500. Once that’s passed then one waits for a suitable position to open up, generally in a few months.

“It takes about $1,200 to $1,500 a day to run this boat,” Meyer said, “and we work hard, but we mostly want to give people a good experience out on the water and a sense of their own history in this corner of the country.”

For more information call 800/200-5239, or go to www.historicalseaport.org.