Today the Niagara got underway, filled with crew, apprentices, and high school trainees from Erie, Philadelphia, Maine, Minnesota, and Ohio, just to name a few. The program, entitled “Exploring the Great Lakes” is making good to its name after a week of initial training for the new trainees.
And a full, fun week of training it was. The students arrived on Monday, July 6th and were swiftly introduced to the most important thing on board: how to keep yourself and your shipmates safe. There is a not-so-surprisingly long list of things that can and cannot be done aboard a ship, and with that the students got their first taste of the weight of responsibility. They were all given a spot on the station bill, or the ship’s plan should an emergency take place, and then they practiced underway, adhering to the Boy Scout motto of “being prepared.” There were man overboard, fire, and abandon ship drills, complete with learning how to properly don personal protective gear like immersion suits (also known as the Gumby suit).
The trainees were also introduced to the exhilarating (or harrowing, depending on who you ask) world of being aloft. The Niagara is square rigged, which means she has stacks of square sails on her mast which cannot be reached from deck. They are stubbornly stationary in their lofty position: hence, her crew has to go to them. Aloft orientation is sort of like yanking a band-aid off: it is painful for most, yet amazingly satisfying. The trainees are introduced to the harnesses that they are to climb in. The question is often asked if the crew is clipped in while they climb. The answer is no, which is the harrowing part. Once they are aloft and on the yard there is a back rope that the crew clips their harness into, which frees up their minds from worrying about falling to focus on their work. Once they understood the harnesses and the key points of keeping safe when aloft, the trainees were sent on their “up and over,” a rite of passage for all Niagara crew. It is just what it sounds like: they climb up the shrouds on one side, over the fighting top, and down the other side. The students were raring to go, but also fighting off nerves as they crawled over, one by one. And it is there that most trainees learn that fear is just an excuse to show courage.
The rest of the first week was filled with actual sail training activity. Learning the complexities of a ship is not an easy task. First you have to understand ship lingo, a complicated language that sounds like English, but to a landsmen is about as helpful as the most obscure aboriginal dialect used in the most barren, forsaken cranny of the world. Luckily, the ship comes with a manual and a crew of patient teachers. The trainees soaked up their new knowledge, some learning by the book, others by doing, but all learning best by making mistakes. That’s how some of life’s most valuable lessons stick: we remember what we do wrong and the right thing sticks in our mind forever. And the best place to make a mistake is surrounded by friendly faces eager to teach. Over the next couple of days the trainees were thrown into the brig life. They sailed the ship for public day sails (which always conclude with a bang. Literally. This ship carries two carronades that are gleefully set off during day sails. Who doesn’t love a good kaboom?) They also anchored off of Presque Isle for the night and learned just how heavy an anchor is when they had to roll out of their hammocks and raise it again in the morning.
When the trainees weren’t sailing, they were living it up. There were picnics, and trips to the beach, sailing in small boats and looking for shipwrecks. There were movie nights where sails turned into movie screens and popcorn abounded. There was a swim call, complete with rigging up a rope swing, and the surprise that comes when you jump from the bowsprit to realize you are still falling and not in the water instantly (it’s high, folks. Very high. High enough to give you time to form an actual thought on the way down).
But today, July 14th, is the day that the ship got underway with her newly trained, ready-to-be-amazed crew. The ship was loaded down with gear and off she went. And it couldn’t have been a better day. Actually it was everyone’s favorite day: Taco Tuesday! (All hail Rosy, the ship’s cook). The students were at their best. Up aloft to loose out the sails, hauling on lines, charting and navigating, acting as lookout and helmsmen (you know that they are being trained well when they are entrusted to steer a really, really expensive Pennsylvania state treasure). Night fell quickly, and the ship began to roll with the waves of the lake. Captain Sabatini later said that he had never seen the Lake Erie so riotous.
The all hands call came at 0300 that morning. [Quick background: While sailing, the crew is split into watches, or groups. One watch will take the deck while the others are below or stood down to rest. So when all hands are called, all hands are needed]. It was dark, with barely any natural light. The wind was picking up and the waves were licking at the hull, tossing the Niagara about. Because the wind was picking up, the sails needed to be reefed, or shortened. The professional crew went aloft in the dark to do just that while the trianees manned the deck. The sounds of the crew working together drifted down from the yards to the deck. It was inspiring to see and hear – one of the students even commented, with what you can imagine was a look of awe, that that moment was “real life”. Captain noted that experiences like an all hands at 3:00 AM is what sailing is. No matter what the reason is that the crew are there, that moment of fierce responsibility and inexplicable feeling of purpose is sailing.