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Sunday, August 11, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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For a salty adventure, sail away on a tall ship

Special to the Seattle Times

Two hundred years ago, tall-ship captains in need of crews often resorted to the "shanghai" technique — kidnapping men from seaport bars. The unsuspecting victims found themselves at sea with no alternative but to work.

Today, there are plenty of armchair sailors, steeped in the literature of Conrad or O'Brien, who would like nothing better than to be shanghaied for a few days.

And there may never be a better opportunity than from Thursday until next Monday, when a fleet of some 20 tall ships parades into Seattle and ties up at South Lake Union for a five-day visit.

If you yearn for a trip on a tall ship, here are a few things to remember:

Don't rely on your travel agent. Most agencies would rather sell a more profitable cruise on one of those big white liners with casinos and rock-climbing walls.

Most tall ships are operated by individuals or groups who know a lot about wooden boats and almost nothing about marketing them. They rely on word-of-mouth and, these days, the Web.

Each ship is different, or downright eccentric, reflecting the idiosyncrasies of its owners. Many are non-profits that focus on educational cruises, but are open to the idea of paying passengers as well.

Don't assume that sailing a tall ship will cost hundreds of dollars a day. Some do, but others are surprisingly reasonable, especially if you are willing to pitch in, coiling lines or swabbing the deck.

Don't expect luxury. Most tall ships offer spartan dormitory conditions, often shared with the crew. There will be one or two shared baths. The food is likely to be wholesome and plentiful, but not gourmet. And if the guy in the next bunk snores, a gentle kick can be effective.

When the ship operator tells you what to bring, take it seriously. Sailing trips can become miserable without rubber boots and foul-weather gear, gloves or even a flashlight.

Learn the lingo. Know port from starboard, schooners from square-riggers, sheets from halyards. And remember, tall ships have no "ropes," only "lines."

Young and young at heart

Perhaps the single easiest way to shanghai your tall ship is to be young and borderline delinquent. These days, at-risk youths are the primary clientele of West Coast sailing ships. Two of the Puget Sound-based vessels, the Lady Washington and the Adventuress, spend most of their time hauling kids on educational cruises.

But don't be discouraged. There other ways to find your ship. Here are a few of them:

Day cruises

Take a day cruise. And there may never be a better time than during the tall ships' visit to Seattle starting this week. Most of the ships docked at Lake Union will be offering short day cruises for $50. And several of them, including the Lady Washington and the schooner Zodiac, frequently offer similar day cruises. Just call and ask.

Longer cruises

If that merely whets your appetite, then look into a longer cruise for three days to a week or longer. You can work through a specialized agency like Ocean Voyages or on your own.

The most-established cruises are the so-called "Windjammer" schooners that sail out of Camden, Maine, or other New England ports. Windjammers are 60- to 100-foot schooners whose accommodations vary greatly. Expect to pay from $150 to $300 per day, including meals, of course.

There are increasing options for sailing West Coast waters. But the trick is to strike your deal with a specific vessel. Some examples:

The Europa (handled by Ocean Voyages) is a 180-foot tall ship that carries up to 50 passengers. It's selling berths this summer on a four-day Los Angeles-San Diego sailing for $695. The Zodiac, a 127-footer based in Puget Sound, has sold all its $2,000 berths on its Seattle-to-San Francisco voyage this month, but still had berths available for the return voyage in September.

The Lady Washington takes paying passengers on transits from one port to the next for $105 per day.

When you inquire, keep in mind that what is deemed impossible by one ship may be routine on the next. Most of these ships operate on very tight budgets, and paying passengers help the skipper meet the next grocery tab.

Charters

Organize a charter on a tall ship. Each year, my wife and I reserve a weekend on the Washington-based schooner Zodiac, then recruit some 20 friends and friends-of-friends willing to spend about $150 a day for a three-day cruise through the San Juan Islands.

Many of the ships, including the Zodiac, also charter to companies, who find a tall ship to be an ideal platform for a corporate retreat. The accommodations may be less comfy than the local Sheraton, but the ship provides an opportunity to practice leadership, teamwork and other personal skills applicable to the office. And you can always find a yucky task for the office jerk.

Elderhostel

Sign up for an Elderhostel at sea. Elderhostel is an international organization that puts together weeklong educational institutes for people 55 and over. Most of these sessions occur at universities during summer vacations. But some are staged aboard tall ships, and at budget rates, in the San Juans (aboard the Zodiac), California, Maine and beyond.

Volunteer

Most tall ships operate with a small cadre of paid people — a skipper, cook and perhaps a first mate. The rest of the crew consists of unpaid volunteers, most of whom show up and express a willingness to exchange sweat equity for sea time.

Sailing ships are labor-intensive. In addition to manning the sails, there is always cabinetry to be sanded and varnished, brass to be polished, decks to be swabbed, toilets to be sanitized.

It may sound arduous, but the work is tackled amid the ambience of a grand, old sailing ship, which makes each task an adventure.

Ross Anderson is a freelance writer and former Seattle Times reporter.

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