Avast, Me Hearties!

Brazilian Tall Ship Cisne Branco photo taken b...
Brazilian Tall Ship Cisne Branco. Image via Wikipedia
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a gray mist on the sea’s face, and a gray dawn breaking.
I must down go to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
 — John Masefield

Have you ever seen, or boarded, a Tall Ship?

Having just watched Moby Dick on the Encore channel last week, starring William Hurt and Ethan Hawke, I had a sudden wave of nostalgia for the times I’ve spent aboard them.

I discovered them in 1984 in Toronto, when they came from all over the world to visit. I fell hard for a young American, Kevin, and spent much of that summer meeting him, and his ship, at various ports around the Great Lakes. Ashtabula, Ohio, for example.

I love everything about these extraordinary vessels: the way they creak, their majestic posture, the physical labor of climbing the rigging, coiling huge and heavy lines as thick as my forearm, furling enormous square sails while standing 100 feet in the air on a footrope the width of….a rope.

It re-defines exhaustion working physically hour after hour after hour (even if it’s fun), burning off 7,000 calories a day and still losing weight. Every single action, climbing up and down below decks, cleaning the brass, turning the ship’s wheel, requires exertion.


I recently had lunch with a man I met on LinkedIn, visiting New York from Vancouver. I only knew he is an excellent speaker and hoped he might help me polish a speech. Over a long lunch we discovered that we had both crewed aboard a Tall Ship, he on the Europa and I on Australia’s Endeavour.

I was fortunate enough to be able to sail for free as a journalist, boarding in Norwalk, CT and sailing to Newport, RI for five days. I slept, as we all did, in a tiny narrow white vinyl hammock I had to string up each night….and one night my knots were weak and gave way and I plunged — ouch! — to the floor.

However cliche, you very quickly learn people’s real character when you live so closely and work in such tight teams in an environment of potential extreme danger. One stupid or inattentive move can maim or kill you, and you notice, fast, those who you best stay as far away from as possible.

It was so fun to meet someone who really knew, and equally loved, this odd world. He sailed aboard for three months, (paying about $50 a day for the privilege), even rounding Cape Horn in 40-foot seas.

My trip was much less exciting, although I loved standing the midnight to 4 a.m. watch and steering the ship beneath the stars.

Have you even been on one of these great ships?

Where and when?

8 thoughts on “Avast, Me Hearties!

  1. Never been on a tall ship, but I’ve stood guard in some dark and lonely places with only the stars for company. Relearning their positions depending where I am.

    The night shift is can be calm, or not. But always there is silence in the sky.


  2. I’ve been on the Endeavour, while she was still in port in Sydney, getting ready for her circumnavigation of Oz. Never sailed on one though. I was mad keen to do a leg of the circumnavigation as crew, but simply couldn’t afford it.

    Next time perhaps!

      1. Definitely aiming for next time. It’s one of the 3 things i have to do:

        1. Get back on tug boats – lately, security restrictions are making it impossible for me to get back on :((
        2. Crew a tall ship
        3. Do a freighter cruise.

        I discovered the last item a few months ago and have been obsessed with the idea of taking one. They’re made for hermits who love the sea: a working vessel, no crowds, lots of time for discovery: http://www.theage.com.au/news/europe/just-a-freight-way-to-cruise/2007/05/03/1177788287437.html

        Perfect imo!

      2. Tugs!!! I had decided one of my dreams while living in NY — an active harbor — was to get out in/on a tug. I did so for a story while at the Daily News. So much fun!!

        My mom took a freighter cruise and enjoyed it a lot on her way to Morocco.

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