It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Crane Day

What a week. What a month. What a winter, for that matter.

(Is winter over yet? I know the calendar is claiming that it’s spring, but we had to shovel snow off the deck this morning, and almost everyone was bundled up in coats, scarves, and fingerless gloves for crane day today. I caught the carpenter humming Christmas songs in the hallway this morning. It all seems very un-springlike.)

But whatever the weather’s decided, we’re operating under the assumption that warmer days, and the sailing season, are rapidly approaching. The winter cover is off, the mainmast is in–with a brand-new snow mast and gorgeous new fighting top–and the deck crew is hard at work tuning the fore and mainmasts, dressing yards, and loading out the ship with deck boxes, sweeps, carronades, engineering supplies, and–well, a whole boatload of stuff, basically.

Most of the seasonal crew has arrived, which means there are plenty of familiar faces working in the shop, on the ship, and around the plaza. We’re also welcoming several new deckhands, and a handful who are returning after a few years away. Come down to say hi and help rig a tall ship! Saturday work parties are busier than ever, and we have plenty of volunteers who stop by throughout the week, too.

By way of enticement, here are some pictures from crane day.

Other exciting news: the Lettie G. Howard! By now you’ve probably heard that we’re beginning a programmatic collaboration with South Street Seaport, in NYC, and that the schooner Lettie G. Howard will be arriving in Erie later this season. We’ll be offering public and private day sails out of Erie, and a Tall Ship Summer Camp program for ages 10-14. We’re planning 9 one-week sessions from mid-June through mid-August, so if you know any young people who are interested in sailing, get in touch with Marcus Masternak at at (814) 452-2744, ext. 222, or email

Lots more to come. It was a busy winter, and we’re not slowing down now.

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Last Saturday was another sail training day, and despite snow and icy roads, so many people showed up that we (once again!) needed to move into the woodshop for morning muster. The highlight of the day came just after coffee break, when Captain Rybka gave a talk on the battle of Lake Erie; he presented a brief history of the battle itself and the events leading up to it, focusing on Perry’s luck and his leadership qualities.

My favorite moment, though, was when he suggested that our motto really shouldn’t be ‘Don’t Give up the Ship.’ Perry did give up the ship: his only hope of winning the battle was to leave the badly-battered Lawrence and take command of Niagara. Instead, Captain Rybka said, the motto should just be ‘Don’t Give Up.’ It’s a very reasonable point. . .but I don’t think we’re going to stop flying our DGUTS flag anytime soon.

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The Great Glue-Up of 2017

It’s official: we have a blank for the starboard fore channel! Yesterday, we took over part of spar alley to set up sawhorses and sheets of plastic for the Great Glue-Up of 2017. Lots of clamps and a few gallons of epoxy later, our three separate boards had become a single very large board. (Adam guesstimates that it weighs about 500 pounds, or, in technical terms, “stupid heavy.”)


Now we just have to cut it down to size and shape it. . .without messing up.

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Blocks and Blanks

We’re running out of sawhorses, workbenches, and rig shop space—a sure sign that we’re keeping busy. Down in the rig shop, we’re serving, sanding blocks, and building some new stays and backstays. In the woodshop, we’re using epoxy to glue up the blank for what will eventually be the new starboard fore channel. The four individual boards that we’re using to make the blank were heavy on their own, and once they’re sandwiched together and epoxied into one laminated piece, we’ll practically need the forklift to move it out of the shop.

(Is there such a thing as using “too many clamps” in a glue-up?  According to Team Carpentry: definitely not. No matter how many clamps you’re using, you need at least one more. Or two. Or ten.)

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Oliver the Carbide-Toothed Zebra

This morning, the crew took a field trip along the Bayfront to visit Dave Bierig’s sail loft, where we learned a little about sailmaking in general, Niagara’s sails in particular, and the challenge of making sails for reconstructed and replica ships. We talked a lot about finding a balance between practicality and historical accuracy, and it would have been easy to stick around the loft all day, exploring and asking questions. But eventually we had to head back to the museum to keep sanding and varnishing.

Team Carpentry spent most of the afternoon sharpening the blades on the thickness planer, one of the most useful machines in the woodshop. It’s a painstaking process—there are eighty-four individual carbide-tipped blades, and they have to be sharpened while still in place in the machine—but a satisfying one.

(The thickness planer got its name—Oliver, the Carbide-Toothed Zebra—when one of our apprentices, Rob, noticed the zebra-shaped patch of sticker residue on the front of the machine. Judge for yourself. Once you’ve seen the zebra, you can’t unsee it.)

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Sail Training

Today was the second day of winter sail training, and morning muster was so crowded with volunteers that we abandoned our usual muster spot and moved into the wood shop. It’s the most help we’ve had all winter, and we took advantage of it—projects that would take days for the winter maintenance crew to finish on their own can be wrapped up in a few hours during our Saturday work parties.

After muster, Chief Mate taught a class on ropes, cordage, and rigging for the new volunteers; meanwhile, the bosun ran maintenance in the rig shop and spar alley, and Team Carpentry finished milling deck planks and started work on the replacement for the starboard fore channel.

Note: The next winter sail training class is two weeks from today, on Saturday, January 28. (But feel free to stop by before then! There’s always work to do, and you can get a lecture from Chief Mate any day of the week.)

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Hump Day

We’re only halfway through our Tuesday-Saturday work week, but the rig shop crew and the carpentry team have already hit some major milestones—we’ve moved from sanding spars to varnishing them, and from deconstructing the foredeck to rebuilding it. The warm spell this week gave us a chance to get some outside work done, too. The fighting top is off the foremast and stowed safely inside, and Niagara‘s Christmas tree was ceremoniously lowered to the plaza yesterday.

(Okay, fine, “ceremoniously” might not be the right word. We threw it from aloft, just like we did last year.)

Below are some pictures of the lumber that Team Carpentry is milling to replace the old deck planks, and an action shot of the rig shop crew, mid-painting.

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Meet the Crew: Amy!

Amy McDonagh is a carpenter’s apprentice and will be sailing with Niagara in the summer 2017 season.

How did you find Niagara?

I did a sailing program a few years ago with SEA (that’s the Sea Education Association) and that’s when I fell in love with sailing. A few years passed, and I figured that since I lived in Cleveland, so close to the Great Lakes, there must be some opportunity to sail in the area. I started researching, found Niagara, and figured “I might as well give this a shot.” And then I did, and it changed my life.

You’ve been with the ship for eight months. What’s that like?

I did my first voyage in May, with the history program, and loved it so much that I started volunteering as soon as the program ended. I sailed on and off all summer, and then at the end of the season I volunteered for downrig, and then for shipyard in Cleveland, which was a wicked awesome opportunity to get to know the ship out of water and have a glimpse of the amount of work it takes to build and maintain a wooden tall ship. I’ve been working winter maintenance back in Erie as a carpenter’s apprentice ever since.

Thoughts on Luke Skywalker? (This is an ongoing debate, fraught with emotion, for many crewmembers. Mostly Amy.)

Luke Skywalker is one of the best characters in the entire Star Wars galaxy. He has big dreams—he wants to get away from his homeworld planet, and find a meaningful life—but he thinks his dreams are out of reach. He’s already faced the uncertainty of not knowing his parents, and then has to face the loss of his aunt and uncle, the only family he’s ever known. He makes the radical decision to leave his life behind to fight for the good of the galaxy. Even though he’s constantly faced with loss and pain, he always works to be good and kind, and tries to see the light in others. He sees the best in others , even in his father Darth Vader (spoilers!) and faces down the darkness in himself.

(At this point Amy began singing Luke’s theme and quoting select lines from The Empire Strikes Back. She then began gesturing wildly and talking too fast for me to transcribe. Let’s just say this is an issue she feels strongly about.)

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Sandwich Saturday

For the last few days, we’ve had a straightforward schedule. We move snow in the morning before we start sanding spars. Sometime around lunch we move snow again, then troop back inside and sand more spars. And at the end of the workday, if the weather gods have been generous, we shovel off the plaza one last time before calling it quits.

Today’s work party definitely involved shoveling snow and plenty of sanding, but since it’s a Saturday, we had a whole crowd of volunteers to help, along with a few former trainees and our newest apprentice, Liz.  The museum was busy, too: about thirty new volunteers stopped by for the first day of winter sail training.

So spar alley and the rig shop were buzzing with activity all day—except during lunch break, when we fulfilled the most time-honored tradition of winter maintenance by rushing the parking lot en masse and caravanning to the nearest gas station for sandwiches. Luckily, we made it through the storm without getting stranded in the icy wastes of the Bayfront, so we made it back in time for muster and only the sandwiches got eaten.

Note: our annual Volunteer Appreciation party is tonight at 5:30, so if you’re a volunteer, please stop by the museum to be appreciated!  And if you’re interested in winter sail training, email Chris at and come to the next class, which is this coming Saturday, January 14th, at 8:30am.

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Scarf Wars

Compared to yesterday’s blizzarding wind and snow, the weather this morning felt almost peaceful. It was cold and grey, but quiet. Only a few flakes of snow drifted down while we shoveled the remains of last night’s storm off the plaza. So when Adam and I started work on the foredeck this morning—we’re cutting scarf joints in some of the deck planks—I only set up one heater, and I didn’t even bother to wear my gloves.

Well before lunchtime, I was regretting both decisions.  Soon, Adam and I had a second heater running. When that still wasn’t enough to fight the steadily dropping temperature, we took a break from our scarf joints to dig up a third heater from a dusty corner of the basement.

Adam’s professional assessment of the weather? “Ideal carpentry conditions,” he joked, while thawing his frozen fingers in front of one of our heaters.

And because he’s a considerate boss, he’s warned us all about the dangers of prolonged exposure to the cold—he reminds us every time we go outside that our Tauntauns will freeze before we reach the first marker.

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