Two Weeks Before The Mast: what it’s like, what to pack

Two Weeks Before The Mast: what it’s like, what to pack

My first post about training on Lady Washington is on the first page of Google results for “two weeks before the mast experience”. What?! That’s awesome, but at the same time, I now feel the need to expand upon my reflections post with some useful information for would-be two-weekers.

What’s the deal with all this, then?

If you’re here to learn more about TWBTM, then great! Keep reading! If you’re a bit lost, maybe check out my previous post.

Two Weeks Before the mast is a program that Grays Harbor Historical Seaport runs on its two tall ships, Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain. After paying a fee to cover room, board, and training you join the ship as full crew for two weeks. Lots of people stay longer to volunteer!

Lady Washington’s quarterdeck (that’s the back of the ship) in the lovely sunrise light.

So how do I do this?

If you’re interested in training on tall ships, all you’ve got to do ask nicely, pay a reasonable fee, and get yourself to the west coast of the US. Seriously, all you have to do to qualify for TWBTM is to a) be 16 or older and b) have a letter from your doctor stating you’re in good health. You look at the ships’ schedule, tell the office your preferred ship and arrival/departure ports, and send them 750$ once they accept you.

Maybe I oversimplify. There’s quite a bit of paperwork, most of which was repetitive and made me feel underqualified. Call the office if you have trouble — from what I understand, they’ve been understaffed recently.

Lady Washington in transit.

What’s living on the ship like?

I can’t speak as to what Chieftain’s like, although from what I hear it’s a bit swankier and the lines are far easier to learn.

If you’re training, you are 100% part of the crew from the minute you sign the ship’s articles. You live with the crew, work with the crew, swordfight on the windlass with the crew…the whole shebang. Mornings while I was aboard started with breakfast at 7 or 7:30 on weekdays, 8 on weekends. Most weekdays had six hours of educational programming and one hour of public tours, while most weekend days had three hours of public tours and an adventure sail. “Stand down” is after dinner, so working hours are from 7ish to 6ish. (The exception to all of this is transit, which is its own beast. We had an easy two-day transit from Half Moon Bay to Antioch when I was aboard, but transits can near a week.) We didn’t operate on watches while at dock but we did use them while in transit.

On Lady, the week’s schedule looks roughly like this:

Monday: Captain’s choice day. (Maintenance, travel, all-crew holiday, crew training.)
Tuesday-Friday: Educational programs for school groups and the public. (See below)
Saturday, Sunday: Extended visiting hours for the public, adventure sails that are open to the public.

Lady has four main types of programs, which go by different names:

Dockside programs: one-hour field trips. Students rotate through three different stations on trade, lives of sailors, and navigation. The ship doesn’t leave the dock.

Educational sails: three-hour field trips. The ship does leave the dock, and students learn line handling, set sails, and sing shanties in addition to cycling through stations.

Public tours: the ship is open to the public for a donation. Crew members are stationed around the ship and the public can wander around to take pictures and ask questions.

Adventure sails: members of the public buy tickets for two-hour sails. Passengers can help set sail if they want, and many shanties are involved.

It’s a pretty intense schedule to maintain for two weeks, but I enjoyed it! All the better for learning all the things about tall ships. If you stay on as crew (yes, people get hired out of this program!) or as a volunteer, you’ll get periodic days off.

“This sounds awesome!”

(or)

…this sounds intimidating”

I had the time of my life on Lady and I plan on going back as paid crew, if they’ll take me. I fully recognize that this life isn’t for everyone. The tall ships crowd seems to attract a lot of summer camp staff, so if you were miserable that one summer as a camp counselor, you might want to reflect a bit more before signing up.

To quote myself in my previous post:

“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.”

If these things make you squirm instead of making you tingle with excitement, spending two weeks on Lady Washington or Hawaiian Chieftain may not be a great fit for you. If the idea of working long hours at physical work alongside great people in exchange for awesome stories and someone else doing your adulting, then what are you waiting for?! Sign the heck up! And let me know how it went. As much as I like being on the first page of Google results, I’d love it if more volunteers and two-weekers wrote about their experiences.

I think Chris took this picture, so thanks Chris! On windlass duty but visiting with my friend’s lovely parents. They drove an hour just to see me and the boat!

 

Is it like Horatio Hornblower…

…or Master and Commander, or Pirates of the Caribbean, or, or…?

This is actually a tough one for me. See, on the one hand, I feel like I’m obligated to say “no”. There’s electricity, there’s an engine, the crew is less stratified, and while I only showered once a week, I still showered.

On the other hand…listen. I didn’t realize it when I watched Master and Commander before sailing on Lady, but all the aloft scenes made me want something I thought I’d never had, namely hanging over a yardarm wearing 18th-century men’s clothes and fiddling with lines while the whole sea and sky spread out around me. And I got that, in the 21st century where women are allowed to vote and where we have PFDs and fire extinguishers and modern medicine.

I’m rambling now. What I’m trying to tell you is that I fulfilled a dream I didn’t even know I had because it belonged squarely in a different century. So go! All tall ship people are nerds, so go be nerds with them!

(Even just this crappy gif makes me feel things. I’ve done that!! I’ve seen views like that!! It’s exactly as magical as Hollywood and Patrick O’Brian would have you think.)

What should I pack?

The lovely office people will send you a packing list. Here are my thoughts:

  • Yes, you’ll want rainboots for deck wash. I wore hiking boots and my feet got soaked through.
  • Raincoat is a must, as are lots of extra layers. You’ll want a hat and gloves even in the summer.
  • A headlamp is great, especially if it’s got a red light feature.
  • There are a ton of books, so if you’re hoping to do some ship-related reading, there’s no need to bring your own.
  • Instruments are fine! Just remember that, you know, you’re on a boat. The engineer brought his fiddle and a lot of us brought tin whistles.
  • A lot of crew wear open-toed outdoorsy sandals for going aloft. I wore my Ariat paddock boots. Their narrow toes were helpful for climbing the shrouds, the slight heel was great for standing on narrow ropes while aloft, and they look old-fashioned so they went well with my period clothing. Some new crew wore their rainboots aloft which I would not recommend.
  • The packing list recommended bringing 14 shirts. I did not wear 14 shirts. I wore one outfit when working with kids and my crew t-shirt when working with the public, alternating long sleeve layers under the t-shirt.
  • Space is tight! I slept with most of my gear on my twin bed next to me, and I had one of the biggest bunks in the foc’sle. Pack light and pack a squishy bag!
  • Pack the dramamine, the eyemask, and the earplugs.
My cubby by my bunk, featuring my harness (which I was issued) and my frequently-worn ball cap and Northface.

Note on cost: 

If the cost is prohibitive, contact Grays Harbor. They have scholarships and may be able to work something out.

If you have previous experience, either in tall ships or in other areas like carpentry or bookkeeping, get in touch with the office and see if they’re willing to take new volunteers with special skills. Sometimes the ships are so undercrewed that they take on willing local volunteers with no previous experience.

If you do your two weeks and you want to stay on, you probably can! It’s pretty standard for crew to stay and volunteer after they’ve been given the OK from the office. As you can probably guess you won’t get paid, but you do get days off as well as room and board.

Have you ever sailed on a tall ship? Do you have questions about Lady Washington or training on a Grays Harbor ship? Let me know in the comments!

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