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.