Two Weeks of Tall Ship Training: My Experience on Lady Washington

Two Weeks of Tall Ship Training: My Experience on Lady Washington

In March of 2017, I called up my mom to pitch an idea.

“So, uh. You know those tall ships? Like in pirate movies or Master and Commander? Turns out you can go train on them. In California. And I really, really want to do that.”

To which my mother, who tries her hardest to understand my whims, said, “why?”

There were a lot of reasons for “why” — on one level, this seemed like a good way to make possible career in-roads (I’m interested in informal education, which Lady does a lot of). On a completely different level, it sounded like a blast. I felt as if someone at Grays Harbor had personally handed me my childhood dreams on a platter.

Image result for hms interceptor
Lady Washington as HMS Interceptor in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

I’ve been into tall ships for years, ever since we made regular field trips to Boston and Salem’s local museum ships. Did I read all the library’s books on lady pirates? Yep. Did I revel in movies like Pirates of the Caribbean and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World? Heck yeah.

I had no clue until this spring that people still sailed ships like HMS Interceptor and HMS Surprise. I figured they were all tied up in docks, like the USS Constitution and my beloved Friendship (in Salem, Massachusetts).

Then, somehow, I stumbled upon Two Weeks Before the Mast, a tall ships training program that’s been running out of Grays Harbor Historical Seaport for over twenty years.

You’re telling me I could spend two weeks living on the ship that portrayed the Interceptor and is a replica of one of the first US ships to reach China? Now I’m interested.

Wait. I get to CLIMB THE RIGGING?! While the SHIP is MOVING!!? Whelp, I’m sold.

When I left home right before my parents closed on our house I had a conga line of plans: first, a drive to Alabama to visit family, then hopping to California to train on Lady, then flying to Thailand to get a CELTA certificate, then, finally, landing in Taipei to study Mandarin. My friend’s parents generously invited me to stay with them on either end of my trip to the San Fran area. (Both my friend and my friend’s mom are fans of tall ships. Although I’d barely met her mother, we never ran out of conversational topics.)

Sunrise at Antioch. While in Antioch we were boarded by literal pirates. (Sneaking on board at four in the morning and trying to steal the small board definitely counts as piracy.)

I was nervous about showing up to the ship with my backpack and an eager spirit. This was mainly because I was worried about the rest of the crew: worried I wouldn’t fit in, demographics-wise; and worried that I’d constantly be an afterthought or a burden. Happily, I was completely wrong. Most of the crew were 19 – 20something, and everyone was friendly and endlessly patient. I had something in common with almost everyone, too, sometimes to absurd levels — the bosun’s mate and I both fence longsword and did Irish step dance when we were younger. Tall ship folks can be pretty heavy drinkers, but this crew preferred playing Dungeons and Dragons to a night out at the pub. (Yes, we turned down an invite to the party at the yacht club to play DND in the main hold. We also spent Halloween fencing. It was the best Halloween in recent history, honestly.)

Darned good selfie from the quarterdeck, where I spent most of our first day of transit.

I spent most of our sailing time pointing to things and saying “what does this do again?” to the nearest experienced crew member. Not only did I have a lot of literal ropes to learn (Lady Washington has over 150 lines), I had to relearn the names of common things. Sole? Bulkhead? Galley? You mean “floor”, “wall”, and “kitchen”, right? Sailors love to shorten words, too, so not only did I have to learn where the fore topgallant sail is, I had to know that it’s sometimes called the “foret’gansal”. It also took me a while to get comfortable with the call-and-response type orders, but after day two or three I was over the worst of the learning curve.

Before I boarded Lady Washington I was stoked to go aloft (that would be tall ship sailor speak for “climbing the rigging”). I actually enjoy working at heights, as long as I feel secure. Lady‘s main mast measures in at 89 feet, well above the 20-30 feet I’d grown bored of. Going aloft was everything I’d dreamed it would be.

I volunteered for bosunry projects partly so I could spend hours aloft. (The rig is also cool and I wanted to learn how it works.) Whenever I heard a call for “hands aloft” I’d always jump at the opportunity to climb up the shrouds and out on the yardarm. The first time I went aloft while we were underway was a sunny day at Half Moon Bay. I was 50 feet up in the air and in 18th-century men’s clothing, fiddling with lines, when I felt that something had shifted. This was a view I’d never thought I’d see outside of a movie. I’d spent hours as a kid reading about girls who put on men’s clothes and ran away to work on ships like these, and here I was, wearing ridiculous front-flap pants and a waistcoat and hanging over a yardarm. That was a high point of training, my year, and quite possibly this decade.

Aloft with the bosun and the bosun’s mate.

Long story short: I loved my two weeks on Lady Washington and I hope to return soon. Life on Lady suited my needs and personality well: I love living outside and near water, living with other people, physical work, working at heights, working with my hands, and informal education/public outreach. I love constantly learning new things, tight living spaces, and someone telling me to eat meals and keep my living space clean. I thrive working in intense, outdoorsy, people-focused environments. The $750 I spent on training were well worth it. Not only did they buy me two weeks of room and board, they bought me incredible experiences, 60+ hours working with the public, two weeks of seatime to put toward possible certifications, an open invitation to come back and volunteer at any time, a glowing recommendation in Grays Harbor’s records, and access to possible paid crew positions. If I didn’t have a flight to Thailand and an expensive CELTA course waiting for me, I wouldn’t have left.

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