History Under Sail: This is Real Life

Recently I was approached by an older man who wished to inform me that history was dead. This could have been the beginning of a lively debate between me and what seemed to be a wayward passerby, but I didn’t feel the need to argue. I was sitting outside at a table, selling tickets to tour the US Brig Niagara, a reconstructed 1812 warship, complete with authentic language and rigging techniques. The massive wooden hull was sitting directly behind me; history doesn’t get much more alive than that.

The reason I had this job was due to one of the programs the ship offered:  my college at the time was advertising for a history credit earned through sailing on the Great Lakes on a huge old ship, and that’s all the convincing I needed to apply to Niagara. Since my three weeks as a history program trainee, I’ve completed my apprenticeship in the summer of 2014, and spent my senior year at Allegheny College in Meadville, PA constructing a senior thesis of nonfiction essays about my time spent on Niagara. For my third season, I’ve climbed the ranks to ship’s clerk as well as Ordinary Seaman, so now it’s my turn to teach trainees a round turn and two half hitches, explain what a Charlie Noble is, and  show them how to get rid of their own puke when they get seasick. No matter how many trainees I meet in a season, I always have a soft spot for the history program, because that’s how I first experienced that ship.


Erie: US Brig Niagara and the Erie Maritime Museum

The program has changed in the past two years. In 2013, my time as a trainee was spent mostly giving tours and racing from port to port – it was a Festival year, so it was much busier and scheduled with the Tall Ships America Corporation. Now, Niagara has the freedom to give the history program more of a historical feel. It’s not that I didn’t learn about the wide history of the War of 1812 and the Battle of Lake Erie when I was a trainee, but that was all the history I learned about. These trainees got the opportunity to visit either a ship or a museum in each port we traveled to around Lake Erie. Unlike the science program, they’re not taking samples to examine from the water, but learning the extensive nautical history from around the Great Lakes.

I arrived for the season on May 17th, eight days after graduating from college. The history trainees had arrived the week before. Already this was different than the trainee program I’d experienced: I arrived on a Wednesday morning and by Friday we were underway to Toronto. Now, the students get more time to become acquainted with the ship and the crew before abandoning 21st century land life and jumping right into 1812 style seamanship. They had arrived for the “adventure of a lifetime”, just as I had two years prior. I was arriving to my first job out of college, a job I was hired for the previous October. I would come to realize over the course of the season that no matter how normal the ship felt to me, I was getting paid to stand night watch and tell students how to scrub the deck during deck wash, whereas many of my fellow graduates, especially my fellow English majors, were still searching for options for post-grad life.

I remember thinking to myself that the ship was much smaller than I anticipated. Disney’s Pirates movies have made everyone believe that ships are as big as they are on screen, which some are, but not all of them. Niagara’s a two-masted square-rigged brig, a large but not looming vessel. Right away, the students were immersed in the berth deck in all of its hot, cramped glory, as well as the three hand-pump marine heads. Trainees are usually wary of these living conditions, but by the end of the day, they’re so exhausted they don’t care where they’re sleeping; much like the rest of us, they just care that they finally  get to sleep.

May 20th – Cleveland: William G. Mather & USS Cod

We left on Wednesday for Cleveland. It was many of the students’ first time out on the water, aside from day sails, and it was my first time back since the previous summer. All I could smell was the familiar, overwhelming scent of pine tar and feel the lake wind hitting my cheeks. It was the students’ first time feeling it, really feeling it, as we turned away from Presque Isle and headed west toward Ohio. Many of them lingered after being stood down to stand on the bow and watch the world go by as we sailed along Lake Erie’s shorelines.

Niagara docked two days later perpendicular to the William G. Mather, a past Great Lakes freighter that is now a museum ship. The students were able to tour the 1925 built 618 foot ship, and learn about its role in World War II, supplying steel to the icy Upper Great Lakes. It was one of the first freighters with radar on the lakes, and was the Cleveland Cliffs Steamship Company’s flagship in 1946. It has a four-story engine room, a 14,000 ton capacity, and by 1964 was the first laker with a fully automated boiler system. It stopped sailing in 1980, and by 1987 was donated to the Great Lakes Historical Society as a landmark. The trainees toured this massive ship while the crew conducted tours as well as a Brigs and Bagels breakfast reception.

Along with the Mather, during our stay in Cleveland, the history program got the chance to see the U.S.S. Cod, a 312 foot, 1,525 ton World War II era submarine. During its time as a naval vessel, it sank twelve enemy vessels and damaged 36,000 tons of enemy cargo. It assisted in the first submarine rescue mission for another submarine, and all seven of its patrols are considered successful. It was towed through the St. Lawrence Seaway and used as a naval training ship from 1959 to 1971, and opened in May of 1976 for public tours. It was recognized in 1986 as a Historic Landmark. This is the only submarine that has not been altered for tours: all the hatches and ladders are the same as when the crew was climbing them. The students were already privy to hanging out on a ship that hadn’t changed too much for the 21st century; Niagara’s different from her original only in our sanitized and refrigerated galley, safety harnesses and extensive orientation, and allowing women to sail onboard.

photo by Hope Collins

Sailing NIAGARA on Lake Erie.


May 24th – Put-in-Bay: Perry Victory and International Peace Memorial

It turns out sailing will teach you all the things you wish you didn’t know about yourself. This could be a hugely rewarding moment of triumph, like when you scale the shrouds to reef and you don’t even blink an eye about it, or when someone asks you to fill out the ship’s log and you don’t even realize that two weeks ago, you wouldn’t have been able to understand what that same person was saying to you, talking about barometric pressure and waypoints and sailing full-and-by. These can also be moments of panic-stricken doubt, and tasting self-resentment for the first time. I was playing a lot of catch-up in my first week back. I hadn’t been sailing since the August before, and now I was here not just to learn how to sail like a trainee or an apprentice: I was hired to teach others who had never done this before. I was there to show them what they were supposed to be doing, while I was desperately trying to remember what I was supposed to know. When the ship was coming in to Put-in-Bay, I was out on the foreyard, trying to hear my AB’s instructions, trying to remember how to zee the leech of the sail for seastowing, trying to not get visibly frustrated while there was a trainee right next to me. The pro crew on deck sent bosun up to help me, which made me relieved and also ashamed. I was supposed to be showing these students how to sail, and I was barely able to do it myself.

Put-In-Bay loves Niagara. The Battle of Lake Erie took place about ten miles away from the island, so today it embraces the ship and all its history by first erecting the Perry Victory and International Peace Memorial in 1913, a 352 foot Doric column, and proudly displaying Oliver Hazard Perry’s Don’t Give Up the Ship flag at every chance it gets. It even has a band that wrote a song for the Niagara, called “Don’t Give Up the Ship” (obviously). When the crew discovered this band, not only did they happily play their song for us, but they humored us and played “Don’t Stop Believing” while we sang along loudly and off-key.

photo by Hope Collins

Perry Memorial by day.

photo by Hope Collins

Perry memorial by night.


The trainees were becoming accustomed to giving tours to strangers who pay to come on the ship and ask questions like, “Were people shorter back then?”

“Where’s Jack Sparrow?”

“Do they make you walk the plank?”

“Are you a pirate?”

Fortunately, they also give tours to people who are genuinely interested in the ship and the War of 1812. They ask about who Perry was and why the ship’s important, and how it managed to stay around for two centuries. The AB of my watch told all of us what he’d learned after working on the ship for six years, “People will be interested in the ship, of course, but they’re also going to be interested in your story, about how you got here and why you decided to come sailing. Don’t be afraid to tell them about yourself, too.” This isn’t hard for a new student: their life has undergone such a whirlwind of change and upheaval that they’re all too excited to tell tourists about the hammock they sleep in and the lines they pull on. I was especially eager to tell tourists that the ship had provided this English major with a job, and some were excited for me, and some really didn’t care about what my life was and why I was here. It’s hard trying to show off when you’re standing on a deck made of 800 year old wood, talking about a ship that’s been around in some capacity for 200 years.

photo by Hope Collins

Put-In-Bay skies seen from deck.

May 27th – Toledo: National Museum of the Great Lakes and Col. James M. Schoonmaker

Our next stop was Toledo, where the students had the opportunity to tour the Col. James M. Schoonmaker, which was in operation from 1911 to 1980, and once held the title “Queen of the Lakes”. In 1987 she was purchased as a museum ship, and now sits adjacent to the National Museum of the Great Lakes. Inside the museum itself, there is an inflated life raft, which I had never witnessed before. I was thinking it would be about the size of a very tiny room, but this was as big as a comfortable hotel room. Niagara has four life rafts, bundled up and deflated, of course, so I had only seen them in their cylindrical cases on deck, but I was glad both the trainees and I got to witness just how big our safety equipment is. Not only does the museum show you how to find shipwrecks such as the lost Edmund Fitzgerald, but the U.S. Brig Niagara has its own corner in the museum, complete with recent and old pictures, facts about Perry, Erie, and the Battle, and its own little model in a case. It’s one thing to hear about Oliver Hazard Perry while you’re sailing on his reconstructed flagship; it’s a whole other thing to see it at the National Museum of the Great Lakes in its own separate display.

This was about the time in the students’ three weeks that the crew started to let them help with rigging and more rigorous projects. An entire watch was on to help house a topgallant mast, and all the way aloft was just a trainee and an AB. The student was scared and laughing the entire time, and although she was wary about going aloft for the remainder of the trip, that’s something she won’t soon forget, even if she wanted to. I knew the feeling, too: the bosun and mates were starting to hand projects off to me, trusting me to complete them myself. Most times I would do it, realize a mistake, then have to start all over, just to undo the whole thing again when the bosun came over to check on it and tell me I was wrong from the beginning. I was relearning how to be a sailor, and it was a slow, frustrating process, but it was my job. I had to do learn this stuff so I could eventually teach it, no matter how many tries it took. During night watch on our way to Buffalo that night, I showed the shivering trainees how to shake their hands so they wouldn’t cramp up against the cold, a method I figured out when I was at helm and felt my knuckles locking up around the line. They were especially grateful I was showing them how to keep moving to keep warm, and maybe appreciated it less when I was constantly reminding them to drink water, put on sunscreen, and to always, always, always bring up an extra layer.

photo by Hope Collins

National Museum of the Great Lakes’ own NIAGARA corner.

photo by Hope Collins

JAMES M. SCHOONMAKER and the sunset in Toledo.

May 30th – Buffalo

The trainees had a different experience in Buffalo than the professional crew did. While they took tours of various museums and ships in the nearby naval and military park, we stayed behind to house the main topgallant mast in the freezing rain. I was sweating lines and getting poured on, shouting up to the top of the mast into the wind, pumping out cutter 8 every hour or so to make sure she didn’t flood. I had forgotten my boots, so I was working in the cold in my Teva sandals. By the end of the day, the bosun poked my exposed foot and asked if I could feel him poking it. I couldn’t, so I got sent below to warm my feet back up. Later we got stood easy, and Fourth Mate made us tea while we huddled below decks in dry clothes: sweatpants, sweaters, underarmour, and multiple pairs of socks. I know in many other parts of America, May is a sweet month of sunshine, bright green grasses, and blooming flowers, but for the Great Lakes, it’s a time of still-thawing freezing waters and subsequently cold winds and rain.

When we left Buffalo, we began making our way back to Erie, the final part of the voyage for the students. During our last night watch for the program, my division was ordered to set sail and turn off the motors. Third Mate called us into muster and explained that we were going about 8.6 knots with the engines, and when we turned them off and began sailing, we pushed our speed up to 8.9. “If you don’t think that’s cool,” he said, “I don’t know what you’re doing here.”

A lot of the students probably didn’t know what they were doing there. I still don’t sometimes: I look around at miles of manila lines and the sails in the headrig and I think to myself the same thing I thought as a history student, “How did this happen? How did I end up here? How can this possibly still exist in the 21st century?” It was worth all the cold and the night watches, the exhaustion and frustration; everything we did together was for moments like this. Even though they were probably baffled by how they ended up spending three weeks of their summer tall ship sailing, I don’t believe any one of them regretted witnessing the wind pushing faster than the motors.

June 2nd – Erie

It takes about three weeks to get back into the swing of sailing. It takes about that long to get the hang of it for the first time, too, so by the time the ship was rolling back through the channel, the history students and I were both considered all trained up, callused and strong and salty. But just like that, the trainees packed up their belongings, donned their land clothes for the first time in three weeks, and drove off with their parents, leaving behind deflated, empty seabags as well as the ship and the crew. The trainees are usually the ones who have a harder time saying goodbye to one another; they know the crew will always be in Erie with the ship, but it’ll be a longer time before they see their fellow program students again. Some come back to the ship, and some stay away forever. Ultimately, their adventure together has ended. They’ll never be first-time trainees again, with the people they got on and off with, who have transcended from strangers to students to shipmates. I remember the sting and the pain of leaving and the confusion of driving away in an air-conditioned car. I also recall vividly how I felt physically: stronger, darker, confident, and fearless.  I had just spent three weeks adventuring around the Great Lakes, and then it was time to leave.

Fortunately, now I get to stay through all the trainee programs. I get to watch all of them transform from pale, unsure students into courageous, loud, unrelenting sailors. They come on as new faces and then they look different to you, because you know them better than some people on land probably know them. The history students especially understand, completely understand, that history is alive. They just lived three weeks of it; they experienced history in a way no other person could have explained to them. Then before we all know it, the program’s over, and it’s time for them to leave, and the next program shows up. The pro crew takes a deep breath, puts a manila line in their soft hands, and carefully explains, “Okay, this is how you palm your turns.”

-Hope A. Collins

About Hope A. Collins

Allegheny College Class of 2015: English Major, Psychology Minor
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