“Saturday Diary: Setting sail for the Battle of Lake Erie”
By Matt Smith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In September of 2015, Niagara had the pleasure of hosting the Fall class of the Williams-Mystic program for a ten day voyage. Read about their experiences onboard on their blog:
And thus the trip ended. The crew weighed anchor and sailed off of the hook (again, one of the coolest and most uncommon things to do without engines) and took a short jaunt outside of Erie. The wind was just right for a good sail, and the crew was loath to strike the canvas and pull in. But come ashore they must, for every great adventure must have an ending so another can begin. The ship was off loaded and the students’ families came from all around to come see their children’s newfound home and meet the crew. Sadly, good-byes were made all around.
And I do mean sadly. There is something so strong in the bond made between shipmates. One of our trainees put it to me this way: The best part of her trip was making 41 new friends, but not just friends. She had a part in 42 lives, and had a part in the responsibility for their safety. While the stars were amazing in the clear night sky, and the sunsets burned into memory, it was the people that they lived with for two weeks (in such tight quarters that camaraderie was almost demanded) that made the biggest impact. They lived in a true community that time has forgotten how to acknowledge.
Henry Richard Dana had two years before the mast. The Niagara trainees had two weeks, yet the lessons were learned, and the parting was such sweet sorrow. Dana put it this way:
“A dozen men are shut up together in a little bark upon the wide, wide sea, and for months and months see no forms and hear no voices but their own, and one is taken suddenly from among them, and they miss him at every turn. It is like losing a limb. There are no new faces or new scenes to fill up the gap. There is always an empty berth in the forecastle, and one man wanting when the small night-watch is mustered. There is one less to take the wheel, and one less to lay out with you upon the yard. You miss his form, and the sound of his voice, for habit had made them almost necessary to you, and each of your senses feels the loss.”
Seafarers are part of the witchery of the sea. The adventure is unforgettable, and the things that are demanded of you and the realization that you are strong enough to do them is invaluable. The high school students came onboard as trainees and left as calloused, tested and tried shipmates. They are going back to land more confident and part of a world that never forgets each other.
And they have one heck of a story to tell.
Today the Niagara set all of her sails. Quite literally ALL of the sails, including a sail on the small boat cradled at the gunwhale. Today was also the day that starboard watch had the opportunity to redeem itself from sportsball and shine at what they are best at: sailing.
Today’s competition was the pinrail chase, an age-old competition wherein the crew must correctly identify the line or thing that the boatswain calls out. In the old days it was used as a training tool (as exemplified in the documentary “Around Cape Horn,” which is also very worthy of your time). For the Niagara, it is a competition. The first crewmember there gets the point for their team. And with as little bias as possible, it is this blogger’s great pleasure to report that starboard watch nailed it.
The score was tied up and time was running short (since the chase had been interrupted by a sudden swell in the wind and the need to strike all of that canvas that was set). So a tie breaker was called: whichever watch could set and strike the main topmast staysail the fastest would win. With amazing alacrity, starboard watch completed the task in one minute and eleven seconds, almost thirty seconds faster than port watch. Redemption from sportsball, indeed. And victory tasted so sweet: the winning team’s reward was ice cream at anchorage off of Presque Isle (which they graciously invited port watch to partake of as well). But not just ice cream, but ice cream with all of the toppings. After all, sprinkles are for winners.
The crew settled down for their last night on board, their stomachs happy and the night air fresh on their faces.
Today was another day sail, which ended just in time as a storm came rolling through Cleveland and kept the Niagara docked for a couple of hours. But they were not hours wasted! The crew popped over to our neighboring ship, the William G. Mather, which is now a museum. Used from 1925 to the 1980s, the Mather was used in the iron ore and coal trades (or really, for any cargo that needed hauling). She was retired eventually because at only 600+ feet she was too small. To the Niagara crew she looked anything but small. And what a luxurious ship! There were lounges with fireplaces and real beds. And lots of heads (bathrooms) with modern flush systems. Ah, what fineries. What a difference to the more rustic Niagara, and what a testament to the changes that maritime commerce and travel that the centuries have brought!
That night the crew was treated to pizza and pop (soda to the rest of the world), and a magic knot show by one of the ship’s guests, Captain Dave Bell, previous captain of the Amistad (another awesome ship with an awe-inspiring history. If you have the time, look it up! Or there is a great movie about it starring Matthew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, and Anthony Hopkins which is definitely worth the time). Despite the confusion and amazement, and the mild frustration of not understanding how the trick was done) the crew had a great time with loads of laughs.
We sailed from Cleveland at sunset. And that was one of those moments where the trainees and the crew remember why they are there. Up aloft loosing out the sail as a perfect orange sun dips below the horizon, silhouetting lighthouses and ships on the horizon as it splashes pink and purple across the darkening sky. It’s breathtaking to see the sunset from such a height and with nothing obstructing the view. The crew working on the main topsail simply stopped and watched the last edge of the sun disappear before laying to deck, burning the image into their minds.
It’s a moment that will not soon be forgotten.
CLEVELAND! At around 0600 the Niagara docked in Cleveland, OH, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on one side and the sunrise on the other. Also, the day before we had sailed off the dock at Put-In-Bay. How cool is that? No help from the modern engines, just man power – the original engine. The crew had the pleasure of welcoming on new day-sail students, as well as some old friends and family members that came out to support them. It’s so fun to watch the trainees share their new life with others, and watch the glow of excitement as they try to put the experience into words. More shots were fired and the ship was returned safely to the dock after a couple hours of fine sailing.
After docking, the crew hightailed it over to see the USS Cod, a World War II submarine launched in 1943. It is a beautiful submarine, and the crew have kept her in as original a condition as possible, complete with ladders and hatches that make maneuvering a little difficult at times. There were the original controls and furnishings, and even laundry machine from the 1940s! (You can learn more about the Cod here: http://usscod.org/).
After the tour there and a quick dinner the crew visited the mecca of the rock world, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You have never seen twenty-six more interested students. From the very first level everyone seemed to be captivated. The clothes, the history, the posters, the music. These high school students were enveloped with the history of rock and roll, from its roots in soul and jazz to its turbulent beginnings and rocketing into American history. Even for those who did not particularly like rock music, the museum held enough interest and music to help them understand why rock is such a large part of the American culture.