Saturday, August 15, 2009

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Life aboard a replica of a 15th century sailing vessel requires some odd hours. In particular, our departures from port often seem to come very early in the morning. And so it was that I came to be hauling myself blearily out of my bunk at 4:00 AM. I am not generally at my most alert at 4:00 AM, but I'll tell you this: nothing wakes you up faster than stepping out of your below-decks cabin, and into several inches of rushing water.

I ran up on deck and found the captain, who greeted me with, "Ah, hi Ben, good morning," which I thought was a pretty relaxed greeting, given that as it turns out, he already knew the ship was filling with water, and did not yet know why. I suppose it's lucky that we happened to be getting up at 4:00 AM, or we might have sunk before anyone noticed. Later that day the captain installed a bilge alarm, which will now sound a 110 decibel siren if water starts to collect in the bottom of the ship.

People come on board and tour these ships, and they basically all ask the same handful of questions over and over. One of those questions is, "What made you decide to do this?" I was answering that question, "It's an adventure," when captain Morgan walked by. (Yes... Captain Morgan. Please leave all jokes in the comments section below.) Captain Morgan has been doing this for close to 20 years now. I asked him, "Is it still an adventure for you, captain?" And he answered, "I really like boats." There was a pause, and it was clear that an explanatory addendum was forthcoming. You know, maybe something along the lines of, "I love the beauty of the open water," or, "The freedom of sailing enlivens my soul," or who knows, maybe, "The sea is like a woman, and I am forever enfolded within her salty embrace." But no. What did he say? What was it that he offered as an explanation for his love of boats? "I just like to fix stuff."

And there is always, always something breaking. Crossing Lake Michigan under engine power in a dead calm one night, the Niña's single engine died. In the Pinta, we maneuvered alongside so that the Niña crew could throw us a line. This was much, much harder than it sounds, in the dark, with one ship drifting, and the ships' overlapping rigging threatening to tangle as we tried to inch closer together. When we finally got that line, we towed the Niña for five hours while the captain banged on the engine.

And the list goes on. Leaving Kenosha, Wisconsin, the buntlines hooked on an overhanging dock crane, and ripped spectacularly away from the sail after yanking the yard askew. Water leaked through planks and shorted out lights below decks. A halyard jammed, preventing us from lowering our jib in high winds, and the sail was ripped to shreds by the time we docked. A carelessly wielded chainsaw (don't ask) took a little chunk out of the deck. Big and small, enough things have broken or gone wrong in the short time I've been here that I wonder how it is the ships have made it this far, this long. I'd be tempted to say, "Never a dull moment," but I'm pretty sure it won't be more than a couple minutes before someone asks me, "So, what made you decide to do this?"

Towing the Niña. Can you see that line stretched across the water?

Out of sight of land on Lake Michigan.

Oh yeah, that jib is done.

Of course no post about Great Lakes sailing would be complete without a picture of a lighthouse.