FOUR DAYS BEFORE THE MAST

or

What am I Supposed to do with all These Ropes

and

Why is this Person Yelling at me?

 

Click on picture to enlarge

 

Mackerel skies and mares’ tails make tall ships carry short sails

When the sea-hog (porpoise) jumps stand by at your pumps

Seagull, seagull, sit on the sand; it’s never good weather when you’re on the land

 

 

In the film Master and Commander, the HMS Rose was used as the main ship. 

 

Actually, there was a time when I would have found such quaint sea lore as quoted above extremely interesting; unfortunately, this is not the time. Although the lines are for some reason running through my head, I am far too otherwise engaged to enjoy them. In what is a dream come true, I am at the bow of a three-masted "tall ship," a "windjammer," a "square-rigger," an almost exact wooden reproduction of a 24-gun British frigate, the HMS Rose.

The replica I am standing on was built in Nova Scotia in 1970 to sail during the American Bicentennial; the original was built in England in 1757 to fight in the French and Indian War and to eventually bottle up American towns, destroy American ships, and stop daring Rhode Island smugglers once and for all. She did her job well; partly in response to her power, the Americans began building their own navy.

Yet, just as nature-lovers belatedly learn that Henry David Thoreau forgot to mention bugs, lovers of tall ships belatedly learn that people who write pretty paeans to the sea forgot to mention seasickness. And so what I am doing at the port bow of a frigate on a storm-tossed sea somewhere off Long Island is what seamen often refer to as giving back to Neptune what Neptune demands; i.e., I am throwing up for the eighth - yes, 8th - time in thirty-six hours. In between such pleasantries, I have to continue working the lines and sails as well as pull my watch including tricks as helmsman, bow watch and boat check.

It is just as well that I continue to work on deck because on my hard mattress cot in the compartment, where sleep is impossible, I hear the loud, monotonous, nausea-inducing sloshing of the sea within the bulkheads and exquisitely feel the sway of the boat. Make that: swaaaay of the boat. And, sure enough, none of the versions of Mutiny on the Bounty be it with Clark Gable, Marlon Brando or Mel Gibson suggests for a second that there might be a problem of that nature. In such films there is no need for Dramamine, patches behind the ear or accupressure on the wrist. So much for Hollywood and mal de mer verite.

Fiction written on life at sea is, at least, far more realistic. For example, in C.C. Forester's Ship of the Line a very seasick Captain Hornblower reflects on how he hated "the indignity of seasickness as much as he hated the misery of it. It was of no avail to tell himself, as he did, despairingly, while he clutched the rail, that Nelson was always seasick, too, at the beginning of a voyage."

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I had wanted to sail on a tall ship both for researching my novel set in 1857 Hong Kong, Hangman’s Point, as well as for the thrill of a lifetime I knew it would be. I soon learned that the ship was based in Bridgeport, Connecticut's Captain's Cove Seaport and that, yes, I could sail on the Rose, but as their Manual For Sailing Aboard The American Tall Ship Rose makes clear: There Are No Passengers on the Rose!

I would, in time, learn what an understatement that was.

By the time the day for my boarding actually arrived, I had already managed to buy my rigging knife and marlin spike, my small but powerful flashlight with lanyard, foul weather gear including a slightly ridiculous rain hat, old clothes (which would soon be full of tar from the standing rigging of the ship), insect repellent and binoculars.

I took the train from New York City to Connecticut, grabbed a cab, and ten minutes later, I was boarding the ship. I could see the "blue peter" flying high, the flag with a white rectangle within a blue background which meant: "All persons should report on board as this ship is about to proceed to sea." Being part of this tradition sent a thrill through me and I thought of the sailors over the centuries as they prepared to leave the safety of a port and to once again take their chances with what Joseph Conrad accurately describes as the "unconcerned immensity of the sea."

At first glance, it looked as if pirates must have attacked the ship shortly before I arrived. The mainmast course yard was missing, the mainmast t'gallant yard was lying on the weather deck and cannons and piles of rope were strewn everywhere. The course yard, I would learn, had been lost in a 50 knot gale off Nova Scotia and the topgallant (t'gallant) yard would be daringly replaced at sea. An expertly performed cleanup soon cleared the deck and had the Rose "all shipshape and Bristol fashion" and ready to leave by noon the following day.

My second surprise was the number of people joining the ship. During wartime, there had been 160 men on board the Rose to both sail the ship and man the cannons. During modern cruises there are up to 49 people on board. What I found was a crew of about 14, myself, and one other person who. like myself, had joined for the four-day journey. Apparently, by boarding in May, I had come aboard before the popular season for coming aboard had begun.

Another surprise: As I walked with bath towel in hand toward the men's head, I was informed there would be no showers; as we would be out to sea for four days we could not spare the fresh water. Oh. Little did I know that I would be so tired working, not to mention seasick, that not taking a shower would be the least of my problems. And yet another surprise was the youth of the crew. Many of the crew members were 19 or 20. One moment they might be horsing around like boys and the next they would be expertly and daringly dangling from footropes 100 feet up the mainmast while, with great expertise, working to control flapping sails during a strong wind. even at that young age, in many ways, "the austere servitude of the sea" had already matured them far beyond their years.

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Seasick or not, one quickly learns he is needed to participate in whatever sail evolutions are called for. "Hands aloft to ungasket sail!" What's a gasket? "Sheet home the main topsail!" The main topsail; you mean there's more than one? "Hands to the braces!" Whose hand and what's a brace? "Let go and haul!” Let go of what and haul what?! And why don't you people color-code these ropes for God's sake? And why isn't the compass closer to the wheel so I can make out the little numbers on it when I'm at the helm? And whatever happened to room service? Of course, the term “before the mast” indicates the motley crew as opposed to the captain and officers who live and dine in more spacious quarters toward the stern of the ship.

I must admit that from the moment I spotted the Rose, a boyhood fantasy immediately came to life: I would be placed in charge of the cannons of a beautiful sailing ship of war. Actually, it made a bit of sense: Inasmuch as I am not mechanically inclined, I knew I wouldn't be much help working with the lines (ropes), and inasmuch as I don't particularly like heights I knew I wouldn't be much help working aloft with the sails, but I had done my military research thoroughly so at least in theory I could, if ordered, load and fire a cannon; so where better to place me than in charge of the guns? And while that did not happen, to my great joy, during my four days at sea, the good ship Rose fired at passing ships!

On the third day, I had just come up on deck to inform the watch officer which of the ship's various compartments needed pumping (my stomach, for one) when I happened to look up. There, flying high on the mainmast, were two signal flags, SN (Sierra November): The S with its blue square on white background and, beneath that, the checkered blue-and-white N. I also noticed a modern naval frigate off our port bow about to cross our path. It was, in comparison with the size of the Rose, enormous, immense, massive. I asked one of the mates what the flags' message was and he showed me the book with the International Code of Signals. The message we were sending to the modern frigate - which apparently had notified us that he would be crossing our bow - was:

You should stop immediately! Do not scuttle! Do not lower boats! Do not use the wireless! If you disobey I shall open fire on you!

Even as I stood there, mouth agape, some of the crew rolled a three-pounder over to the starboard bow and aimed it while another crew member appeared from below and shouted: “Gunpowder on deck!”

Everyone put out his cigarette and men began preparing the cannon. No, they were not joking! The uppity destroyer was to be taught a lesson. And, incidentally, "three pounder" refers to the weight of the cannon ball it would fire not to the weight of the cannon. For example, the ball of a "nine-pounder" weighs nine pounds; the cannon which fires it weighs 2850 pounds. In this case the cannon would not actually be “shotted” (loaded) but would the “enemy” know that?

Rather than the old-style linstock with slow match, two wires from a hand-held modern device were attached to the cannon, the crew member doing the firing donned earmuffs and, after a suspenseful several seconds, the Captain gave the order: “Fire!”

Even from a mere three-pounder on an open deck, the noise was incredibly loud, and, until it quickly dispersed, there was plenty of powder-smoke. Apparently, what HMS Rose lacked in modern armament, her Captain and crew made up for in brazen daring. The behemoth continued to ignore us and sail past our bows at about 18 knots while we headed toward her with reduced sail at about three knots.

I could just make out a sailor running quickly (in panic?) on their top deck and joined in the laughter with others in my crew. But then I realized the sailor I was watching seemed to be heading toward some kind of huge turret gun. Worse, I suddenly remembered that modern frigates such as the one I was laughing at - the very one we had just "shot" at - have anti-aircraft and ship-to-ship missiles. Fortunately, the captain of the modern frigate seemed not to take offence that the captain of a traditional frigate was busting his chops and off they sailed into the distance while the crew of the Rose speculated on what - if anything - a cannonball would have done to the frigate's hull had we actually fired one.

The HMS Rose was the ship commanded by Russell Crowe in the film, Master and Commander, and the author Patrick O'Brian, in his book of the same name, wrote of such a battle scene this way: "He could see the round blackness of her guns' mouths now, and as he watched so they erupted, the flashes brilliant in the smoke and a great white bank of it hiding the frigate's side." No, it wasn't exactly as he describes it but we had held our (watery) ground; we had prevailed. And I began to understand what Herman Melville meant when he wrote over 150 years ago that "sailors are the only class of men who...see anything like stirring adventure!"

But make no mistake about it: Working aboard a tall ship is grueling, arduous and demanding. The helmsman must keep his eye on the compass and make certain the ship is on the correct course fighting, if necessary, contrary winds and the awesome power of the ocean; while the ship rolls and tosses, the boat check must scramble down into tiny spaces with his flashlight to determine when certain areas of the ship need pumping; and the men high aloft in the rigging soon learn that the old saying of "one hand for the ship and one hand for yourself" is fiction. The ship often demands both hands and, when aloft, men balance on the footropes as best they can. And of course the crew must at all times control the Rose's 13,000 square feet of often temperamental sail.

Watches are in four-hour shifts but one must also work each day for another four hours and be available for any emergency. On one occasion, after pulling watch from midnight to four a.m., just as I was getting into my bed or, rather, swaying cot, I was told that the weather had worsened and all hands were needed back on deck to furl the sails. It was 4:15 in the morning and until then I hadn't known there was a 4:15 in the morning. Trying to haul recalcitrant lines as a strong wind blows over the bow of a swaying ship in the middle of the night is something that has to be experienced to be appreciated.

And with such a small crew on board, even those without nautical skills must pitch in and do the best they can. My greatest fear was not the height of the main t'gallant yard or the wrath of enemy ships but that I might be thought of as the type of sailor Conrad described so well: "...the man that cannot steer, that cannot splice, that dodges the work on dark nights; that, aloft, holds on frantically with both arms and legs, and swears at the wind, the sleet, the darkness; the man who curses the sea while others work. The man who is the last out and the first in when all hands are called. The man who can't do most things and won't do the rest...the sympathetic and deserving creature that knows all about his rights, but knows nothing of courage, of endurance, and of the unexpressed faith, of the unspoken loyalty that knits together a ship's company."

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Sailing and working on board a tall ship has been compared to bush flying in Alaska and scaling impossibly high mountains: it leads to the discovery of another universe. And to be far from land on the deck of a tall ship at night is to enter a world of intense, vivid beauty and breathtaking resplendence. I shall never forget the first night I came out on deck for my watch. The ship's port and starboard lights cast very little light on deck and I stepped out into a world of complete darkness above which was a sky more full of stars than I had ever seen. And in the darkness on deck I saw the glow of a cigarette; the only sign that, in the midst of this immense, dramatic, almost unimaginable landscape, another human being was somewhere near. I could hear the wind singing in the rigging above, the slight complaint of sails as they cracked in the wind, the clattering of the blocks (pulleys) against the masts and the water striking the bow. I could see waves breaking into foam or, as they are often referred to by sailors, "Neptune's sheep" and "white horses."

Not surprisingly, it was Conrad who best described such a scene; as he wrote in The Nigger of the 'Narcissus': "A multitude of stars coming out into the clear night peopled the emptiness of the sky. They glittered, as if alive above the sea; they surrounded the running ship on all sides; more intense than the eyes of a staring crowd, and as inscrutable as the souls of men...The ship was a fragment detached from the earth...round her the abysses of sky and sea met in an unattainable frontier."

One thing sailing on board a tall ship will give any modern sailor is a deep sense of respect for the men sailing them today and especially for those who sailed them in yesteryear. Whereas we had excellent food and well balanced meals, they had salted meat and weevil-filled ship biscuit; whereas we had emergency engines, radar and electronic depth sounding devices, they had lead lines and sextants; whereas we at least had berthing areas, they slept in 18-inch-wide hammocks on the gundeck. And to be wounded in battle usually meant facing the ship surgeon's "dismembering blade" which more often than not ended in death.

Ships such as HMS Rose are keeping such experiences and traditions alive. And to stand at the bow or to take the helm of a tall ship like the Rose as it sails on alone through a vast, dark ocean under a sky full of stars is to understand what Conrad meant when he wrote: "The true peace of God begins at any spot a thousand miles from the nearest land." And, to the best of my knowledge, the record I set on board still stands: No one else has ever vomited on board the HMS Rose eight times in 36 hours!

So let Russell Crowe eat crow on that one.

Copyright Dean Barrett 2014

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THE AMERICAN TALL SHIP ROSE

Richard Bailey – Captain

A full-rigged ship: three masts with square sails on each one

Specifications

Length overall 179 feet

Length on deck 125 feet

Height of main mast 130 feet

Displacement 500 tons

Draft 13 feet

Beam 32 feet

Sail area 13,000 square feet

 

For more information on this great ship go here: http://www.tallshiprose.org/

 

 

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Hong Kong and southern China in 1857.  Amazon Kindle.

Setting is more than a backdrop in this fast‑paced adventure story of mid‑nineteenth‑century British colonial Hong Kong....A riveting, action‑packed narrative....Chinese scholar, linguist, and author of previous books, Barrett draws on his vast knowledge of southern China during a time of enormous change and conflict, providing richly fascinating detail of the customs, fashions, ships, and weapons of the times.”

                                                          -- ALA Booklist

 

“An expert on Hong Kong and the turbulent time period portrayed, Dean Barrett has fashioned a swashbuckling adventure which will have both history buffs and thriller readers enthralled from the very first page.  An outstanding historical novel."

                                                         ‑‑ Writers Write Reviews

 

"If Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey and Maturin ever got as far as Hong Kong in 1857 on their world travels, the aged sea dogs would feel right at home in China expert Dean Barrett's totally convincing novel of high adventure.”

                                         ‑‑ Dick Adler, Amazon.com Reviews

 

"A great epic of a historical mystery.”

                                                         ‑‑ Bookbrowser Reviews

 

"The adventures of this latter‑day Indiana Jones will leave him fleeing for his life through the town of Victoria (Hong Kong), bring him face to face with the perils of the pirate‑infested waters of the Pearl River, and finally fix him a date with death at Hangman's Point....The novel is peppered with well‑defined characters from all walks of life....It would be just another potboiler a la James Clavell, but Barrett's extensive research sets this novel apart: as well as a ripping adventure story, it is an intimately drawn historical portrait."

                                                       ‑‑ South China Morning Post