Mariners, craftsmen revive elegant vessels
Special to The Seattle Times
ON BOARD THE LADY WASHINGTON — On a warm summer's afternoon, a westerly breeze fills the trapezoidal sails of our tall ship as she glides past Cape Flattery into the fabled Strait of Juan de Fuca. The brigantine Lady Washington rocks gently with each ocean swell, her wooden bones creaking a grumpy complaint...
The crew of 16 on the Lady Washington is scattered from bow to stern, tending to sails, sanding and varnishing or catching some sleep below. After two days of motoring up the Pacific coast before entering the Strait, all hands savor the silence of sail.
Studied from the deck below, the ship's rigging seems impossibly intricate: a dozen billowing sails suspended from two sturdy masts and a 20-foot bowsprit, all linked by miles of line, some 150 different lines in all, cleated to the port and starboard rails.
The voyage of the Lady W from the Columbia River near Portland and up the outer coast to Cape Flattery has taken most of three days — a trip an automobile makes in a few hours.
But then one does not step aboard a tall ship to get anywhere fast. This vessel's mission is a downwind voyage across time.
Armchair sailors, steeped in the literature of sail from Conrad to O'Brian, will step aboard to explore one or more of these elegant relics. Some will pay $50 for an evening cruise into Lake Washington. And a few will sign up for a longer voyage.
The visiting fleet of 20 ships will include only a couple of the enormous ships that have paraded through East Coast ports in recent years.
Most of the "Class A" ships are owned by foreign navies, which opted out of this year's West Coast tour due to economics and worries about terrorism. And anyway, the tallest of the tall ships — including the Ecuadorean naval-training ship Guayas, which paid a visit to Elliott Bay last month — can't sail into Lake Union because they're too towering to fit under the Aurora Bridge.
Still, this week's visit will be the largest gathering of traditional tall ships in Puget Sound for at least half a century, part of an amazing maritime renaissance.
A generation ago, only a few of these vessels had survived from the great Age of Sail, the rest having been abandoned or scuttled as motorized ships monopolized the seas. But tall ships are tacking back onto the horizon, largely thanks to a few stubborn mariners and craftsmen who have revived centuries-old shipwright's skills that had been given up for dead.
There is the schooner Zodiac, a 127-footer with a mainsail the size of a basketball court. Faithfully restored by the local Mehrer family, the schooner now cruises Puget Sound and will join the fleet arriving this week in its voyage to San Francisco later this month.
There is the Adventuress, another Mehrer family project, now run by a nonprofit that focuses on environmental education.
There is the 95-year-old schooner Martha, once owned by actor James Cagney, then abandoned, now sailing again.
Some, like the Zodiac, cater to paying passengers. But most are used to educate schoolchildren or "at-risk" youth.
"Tall ships have proven to be a very effective way to teach character and leadership and teamwork," says Bob Sittig, director of the Maritime Heritage Center and chief organizer of this week's visit. "Nobody can sail one of those ships alone. To accomplish anything, people have to work together."
As tall ships go, the Lady Washington is something of a runt, just 68 feet on deck. But she is as elegant as any ship in the fleet — a faithful replica of the ship sailed by Capt. Robert Gray when he explored Grays Harbor and the mouth of the Columbia in 1792.
Today she sails coastal waters, crewed by a licensed captain and a constantly rotating group of volunteers (this writer included) who happily pay $25 a day to see the world from the deck of an 18th-century spaceship.
On this sailing, starting at the fishing port of St. Helens, 25 miles downriver from Portland, it is a motley crew indeed. There is Kevin McKee, our captain, a former Seattleite who stepped aboard the Lady Washington 11 years ago and never really stepped back off. There is Tamara Becker, watch commander, who makes her living as a licensed crewman aboard offshore oil tankers, then comes home to sail tall ships.
There is Michael Kellick, a now-and-then actor from Los Angeles, who has been known to sail a tall ship in the morning, then play a bit part on Fox TV's "The X-Files" in the afternoon. And there is Prairie Pipes, a 19-year-old from Southwest Washington who scrambles up and down the rigging like a Flying Wallenda.
It took three days to cruise down the Columbia, over the notorious river bar, and up the outer coast to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It was a mellow voyage, thanks to calm seas, warm days and moonlit nights.
On our last night, several of the crew gather at the helm as we sail the broad strait under a full moon, enveloped in a silky film of ice crystals. The lights of Victoria, British Columbia, glowed in the distance beneath the Big Dipper, which blinked at us through the rigging.
Kellick, the actor, recited something appropriate from Shakespeare, and the conversation turned to the mystique of tall ships. Why are people lured aboard these wood-hulled relics?
Certainly it has much to do with sheer spectacle — the towering masts draped with billowing canvas and intricate rigging.
But if size matters, so do the more subtle qualities of these exquisite antiques. Tall ships transport us into our region's history. The fleet now sailing Puget Sound followed the same route, using essentially the same technology used by Gray and Capt. James Cook and Sir Francis Drake.
Each was looking for the fabled Straits of Annian, the shortcut to the riches of Asia that would cut thousands of miles and months of travel time between Europe and the riches of Asia.
Once discovered 200 years ago, the straits failed to provide a shortcut, but did provide access to an extraordinary landscape laden with other kinds of riches.
My shipmates offered still more reasons to go sailing. "People are tired of dealing with computers," Becker suggested. "People want to have adventures where they rely on their own skill and ingenuity."
Kellick agreed. "I think tall ships provide an index to our natural selves," he said. "So much of our lives are artificial ...
"Sailing a tall ship is real. It's a genuine challenge. You have to learn something about the physics of wind and wood and sails. You have to learn a new language. You have to work with people you don't know and may not like very much. Eventually you're going to find yourself in a hairy situation, and the only solution is to rely on yourself and on your shipmates."
In our four-day voyage, we encountered nothing more challenging than a moderate northerly and young seasick sailor. But we still managed to learn a few things.
Sailing ships, after all, are not so much about going someplace. They are about getting away. Anybody who has ever gone to sea knows that much of the appeal has to do with leaving day-to-day problems and worries behind on the dock. For the duration of a voyage, be it an afternoon or a month, the sailor's only problem is to find the wind and harness it.
The destination is irrelevant. The ship is the destination.
And all the better if the ship is a tall one.
Ross Anderson is a free-lance writer and former Seattle Times reporter. Times photographer Alan Berner: 206-464-8133 or firstname.lastname@example.org.