Sunday, 11 March 2012

Tall ship adventures continued

This week they started training us to actually handle the whipstaff: the tall, glossy wooden pole that served as the 17C equivalent of a steering wheel. We practiced dodging pirates and icebergs (the usual perils of Delaware rivers) by putting the stationary ship through its imagined paces.

This involved putting the whipstaff “in the hole” (pushing it to the side and sliding it down into the cavernous depths beneath the helmsman’s feet, which turns the ship in a hard, hard right or left, depending on why direction you pushed it in). We also practiced checking the compass (the GPS, which tracks a boat’s real direction, would actually throw us off). We learned that to turn the ship a couple of degrees, the helmsman will hold up two fingers to the mast and try to plant the nose of the boat on the edge of that second finger.

We were told, also, to beware the whipstaff. Through the miracle of physics, the whipstaff grants the person touching it a 40:1 mechanical advantage, allowing even a small person like myself to shift the 3200 lb rudder in calmish seas. (In rough seas, two people would handle it.)

But the whipstaff is called the whip -staff for a reason. It can redirect its force quote ferociously. One of my fellow trainees has a friend training on another ship who was sent flying by a rebellious whipstaff. She broke a rib and ankle. For this reason the whipstaff is kept in check by a loop of rope suspended from the quarterdeck ceiling when not in use. And it isn’t used when the engines are powering the boat in or out of dock.

I enjoyed repeating the helm commands etc. It felt almost official.

Climbing

“Do you know why they put the martlets here?”

I was at that point lying with my belly across the yard and my feet on a very wobbly piece of rope. No I did not know.

“What I heard,” the experienced climber said, “was that in the old days, sailors were terrified of falling to the sea. They couldn’t swim and they had no life boats. So they rigged the martlets here so that if you fell, you would fall onto the deck. Sure, your body would be broken, but you at least had a chance of living.”

“I—” (Oof) “Would prefer—“ (oof) “The Sea.”

“Looks like you’re caught on that knot. You need to stand up a bit and move your clips so that you can slide over it.”

“Oof.”

“That should do it. Yeah,” he said, looking down. “The sea. I dunno. It’s pretty cold today.”

It was cold. Or at least the wind was cold. My hands were neon pink and numb. I occasionally trapped the ropes with my elbows so that I could rub my hands together to warm them. I’d been worried that numb hands could lead to a weak grip, but they continued to obey me all the way up and down. Their numbness was a sulky, teenage kind of numbness, I suspect. They couldn’t quite believe I was making them work in the cold.

Back on deck I noticed that the backs of my hands and fingers were now covered with a cross-cross of faint scratches and scabs of blood from where I’d wedged them against ropes. I hadn’t felt a thing.

In short, the climbing continues to get easier.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Ongoing Adventures of a Cowardly Climber

Climbing went much better this week. For one thing, I had better footwear. For another, the tarp had been taken down, so the swing onto the shrouds was easier to make. Also, my body had gotten time to adjust to the whole “ropes will move” idea.

Best advice given to me: “Never look up or down when climbing. Just watch your hands.”
Most interesting /least-reassuring advice: “Try to climb with a foot on either side of a shroud [i.e. with the vertical pole of a rope ladder between your legs]. That way if a ratlin snaps, you’ll still have one foot on a rope.”

Staring at my hands definitely helped. I managed to climb up onto the yard (the horizontal mast that forms the t of a tall ship mast).
There’s a horizontal rope that runs under the yard. This is the foot rope. You step onto it after clipping into another steady rope running along the top of the yard. Once both of your feet are on the rope you quickly shift your weight over the yard itself by putting your belly (or chest, if you’re short like me) on the yard. This allows you to drape your hands over the yard, down to the top of the sail, and from here you can gather in or loose the ropes that furl the sail.

I’m finding that once I’m about 10 feet off the deck, the height stops bothering me. It stops being “real height” and moves into the realm of “unreal height.” I think my reptile brain knows all too well the dangers of falling from heights it’s accustomed to, but once I get beyond that, it has no experience to draw on. Hopefully, if I’m occupying my forebrain with “which rope do I grab” and “how do I tie this” my reptile brain won’t wake up to the whole height thing.
I have to say, though, I’m really impressed by the experienced climbers. They can do things I haven’t seen outside of money cages, and they do them without being clipped in. One of the EC’s bypassed two trainees on the same “ladder” by going hand-over-hand down the outer rope (the vertical ladder pole). I won’t be doing that anytime soon…

While up at the yard I talked to another trainee, a woman in her 60s, who told me that she’d applied to be a tall ship climber when she was young, but had been turned down because women weren’t allowed to climb. “This is one of my life’s dreams, and I’m finally in a position to do it,” she said. Then she noted the number of women training for climbers.  Times have changed.

Tall ship update

I am now a genuine tar. I’ve rolled so much oakum that my exercise clothes reek of pine tar. I noticed it when I went to belly dancing. It’s not an unpleasant smell, but it’s weird, like a Christmas tree  soaked in petroleum. My palms feel like I’ve just rubbed them with body butter.  And I keep finding tiny white hairs from ropes scattered over my clothing, as though I have a pet cat made of rope fiber waiting for me at home.  I increasingly suspect that there Is No Unmarked Tall-Ship Sailor, to borrow Tannen’s phrase. Writers take note.

This week the fore course was finally up, so we got to practice our rope-hauling and belaying in more realistic conditions. Also, I climbed up to the yard and practiced getting my hands on the top of that sail. I’ll write about that in a separate post.

Things I learned this week: 

1) The bow-watch (the person scanning the ocean to make sure the ship doesn’t crash into anything) has to know how to deliver the “ship/log/person/Cthulhu dead ahead!” warnings in sign-language as well as verbally. Sometimes a ship is a noisy place, and damnit, the captain needs to know if there’s a reef off the beam. I’m looking forward to learning some of these.
1) Boat-check. Boat check is conducted every 30 minutes, usually by the person coming off bow-watch. The boat-checker goes through the ship looking for hazards (fires, bilge levels, pirates etc.). It’s pretty efficient. A single night watch person seems to do 4 checks on his or her shift. They’re increasing the night watch patrol in response to attempted burglaries though. Apparently, junkies look at a tall ship, think sailors=alcohol, and try to break in.