Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Field Trip to 1906

About an hour ago Captain Watts discharged my son Avery and me from our duties aboard the Balclutha, a sailing ship docked in the Bay. Together with Avery’s class (the regular crewmen), his teacher (Guest of the Captain), four other parents (the Tall Sailors), and the staff of the Age of Sail program (the Officers), we set sail to Portland in the year 1906 to fetch much needed timber for rebuilding San Francisco. Avery worked in Galley Crew, and I in the Rigger Crew. The simulated voyage—a 20 hour adventure –was arduous but ultimately successful.

The Balclutha—a glorious three-masted steel hull square rigged sailing ship built in Scotland and now docked in the San Francisco Maritime Museum—has sailed many times around the world since its commission in January 1887, and did actually sail up the West Coast through Frisco In 1906. Today, as our nation’s only floating national park, she’s open to visitors by day but open only to the Age of Sail program off hours.

Dockmaster Clyde allowed us to board with but one duffel bag for our pillow, blanket and toothbrush. He relieved me and the other Tall Sailors of any anachronistic distractions like cameras and phones, so for 20 hours we were completely off-grid. First Mate Phoenix was not pleased when Second Mate Bonk presented the new crew. “I dispatched you to recruit 10 older experienced sailors, not 10-year-old sailors, you ninny!” But Captain Watts -- determined to be the first to market with Oregon lumber -- resolved to train the greenhands.

The Galley, Boat, Boson, Rigger and Deck Crews were each manned by four regular crewmen plus one Tall Sailor (grownup). But the Tall Sailors were NOT in charge. In fact, the contract we signed specifically prohibited us from doing or saying anything (except in the case of emergency, which never came up), since this experience was for the kids’ benefit, not ours. After years of

helicopter parenting, we had to somehow be there without ever saying a single word to any of the children, including our own. As they fumbled to put their coats on upside down, or provoked the captain by forgetting to remove their hats on deck, or over-salted the stew, or didn’t think to use the Head Call when they had the chance, or spoke too softly to be heard, or wondered where to stow a dirty tissue, or groped for the right word, or bickered, or encountered any of the little struggles that we normally help them overcome, the Tall Sailors had to suck it up and let it be. We simply followed our crews around and watched (though at night the Tall Sailors slept in a separate bunk galley so regular crewmen were on their own to make bunk).

In fact a regular seaman from each crew had already been designated to lead that crew as their mate, and to give the orders that the rest of us had to follow to the word. When it came to ship discipline, there was no impunity for Tall Sailors—I had to haul firewood for the Galley stove more than once just for putting hands in my pockets as the frigid Bay winds whipped around us.

It took some harsh training, but the crews learned how to appropriately respond to their captain, first mate, other officers and crew mate. (Say ‘Aye, Sir’ to anyone other than the captain and you’ll haul water buckets during Galley call.) The crew mates themselves were mostly uncomfortable at first when it came to issuing commands (our Rigger Mate was a sweet, shy 10 year old girl), but with the First Mate and Captain breathing down their necks they quickly learned to bark out orders clearly and properly.

For the past week the regular crewmen had been preparing by learning all kinds of stuff (that I still don’t know) such as how to identify parts of the ship, tie all kinds of strange knots, and sing authentic sailor shanties. So they were ready right away for the officers to teach them more complex team skills, such as working in unison to lower and raise the lifeboats, coil the hawser (a thick 120 foot mooring line), raise their school's flag up the main mast, and swab the decks. Rather than teach the crews directly, officers trained the mates to teach the crews.

The deck crew kept the bells ringing on time, and the galley crew kept all the hands fed. Through the cold night each crew kept a silent 90 minute watch, punctually and quietly relieving their deckmates. Turns out we had no pirate attacks (or sleepwalkers) and so it was a time for the deckhands to reflect on what they accomplished yesterday, and to enjoy the sounds and smells of the Bay, barely illuminated through the mist by the Ghirardelli factory sign. One boy, weepy and homesick, made it through the night with the help of his mate, but in the morning he had the biggest smile of all.

At 0430 this morning the Galley Crew began preparing breakfast and by 0600 all the crews were dressed, everyone had a Head Call, and the seaman returned the hawser to port. After galley call, it was time for some sailor fun—the Rigger Crew had hoisted a block and tackle and new lines up the aft mast to hold an expertly knotted boson’s chair, and now their mate was coordinating their Heaves and the Hos as the Riggers hauled their chair up the mast with their own crew members in it. At the captain’s suggestion, they recruited other crews to man the stern line, helping them hoist the Guest of the Captain (their teacher), whom they brought back to deck only after negotiating a week’s relief from homework.

At the final assembly of all deckhands, Captain Watts led us in a shantey.

The work wuz hard an' the voyage wuz long,
Leave her, Johnny, Leave her!
The sea was high an' the gales wuz strong.
An it's time for us to leave her!

It was as if these were different kids than yesterday morning. What they learned on the Balclutha went beyond a nautical lesson. They were confident, in charge, and even respectful of the officers who had been so firm with them. They learned that they can accomplish way more than they thought, that with elbow grease, teamwork and their own wits they can solve their own problems.

And that’s when it occurred to me that maybe in fact the Tall Sailors had as much to benefit from the experience as the kids. The 20 hours of just watching taught me that letting Avery solve his own problems is not only possible, but far more rewarding.

The captain dismissed the crew and for the first time in 20 hours parents and children could speak to each other. The kids of the Tall Sailors gave us each a “Hi” or a even a hug, and then went back to gathering their duffel bags--everything back to normal, but with a bit more spry in their steps, and a newfound respect for them in our eyes.


  1. Anonymous11:59 AM

    As a teacher that has been taking kids on this trip for years, you did a great job sharing the experience. I am going to pass your blog along to parents that are apprehensive about letting their child attend!!!

  2. Anonymous12:59 AM

    Thanks for your post! I am a parent of a 5th grader who is soon to embark on the aforementioned journey and I enjoyed your perspective of the event. I was 1st mate on a catamaran (for tourists) in the SF Bay for many years and one summer spent many hours/days/weeks helping to maintain the Balclutha. Nothing sounds more challenging though, than to keep one's mouth shut as a Tall Sailor, accompanying one's 10 year old, overnight, in the cold. What an experience! For everyone involved.

  3. My 4th grade son and I just returned home from this trip on Friday.(I was also the Rigger Tall Sailor) It poured rain for a lot of the trip, even had some lightening, but it was amazing and I would do it again in a second. You described it very well. Thanks for sharing.