Pride's Crossing

A 22-year-old native of Chappaquiddick, serving as second mate aboard the traditional schooner Pride of Baltimore II, sails across the Atlantic for the first time in her life.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005,
2200 hours
Falmouth, England

None of us, not even the captain, expected to experience the weather that we did for as long as we did.
He called it “relentlessly lively,” similar to a two-year-old who won’t sleep and often has screaming fits. There were the occasional times when I didn’t feel like puking, and I could actually pay attention to the fact that I was crossing the Atlantic Ocean under sail for the first time in my life.

Pride of Baltimore II, a 157-foot, square-topsail schooner, had crossed the Atlantic – but I never had. She departed Annapolis in early May of last year, sailing for Ireland and Denmark. I chose the position of second mate knowing that it was more responsibility than I’d ever taken on before, but wanting to prove to myself that I’d learned something in the last five years I’d spent sailing traditional schooners.

As second mate, I would lead a navigational watch of two to five professional and guest crew members. As third in the chain of command aboard Pride II, I had only the captain and chief mate between me and full responsibility for the ship. I was twenty-two years old.

The captain who would skipper Pride II across the North Atlantic is an old friend of Captain Robert S. Douglas, master of the schooner Shenandoah, which has sailed out of Vineyard Haven since 1964. Aboard Shenandoah, I got my first taste of sailing a traditional schooner when my parents sent me on a weeklong kids’ cruise for my twelfth birthday. Three years later, while I was a sophomore at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, I spent two weeks aboard Alabama, another Vineyard Haven schooner owned by Captain Douglas.

It was on board those two ships that I first felt my strong connection to the life of a sailor – or rather, what I perceived that life to be. It wasn’t sailing in the fog, or the dory races, or the blustery days that captured my heart. Instead it was the evenings spent at anchor doing dishes in the small, cozy galley, or neatly coiling lines and tightly furling sails or doing the daily deck wash. (I also came to love the language of the sea, and the way the tall-ship community continues to use the same terms that sailors used 100 years ago, keeping traditions alive.)

In the summer of 2000 I sailed as a student on the Harvey Gamage, a 131-foot, gaff-rigged, wooden schooner launched in Maine in 1973. During the tall-ship celebrations that year, we sailed up the East Coast from Bermuda to Nova Scotia, and although we traveled in company with a fleet of tall ships from all over the world, the vessel that caught my eye was another traditional wooden schooner, this one from Baltimore. Pride of Baltimore II was one of the most beautiful ships I had ever seen, and I dreamed of sailing on her one day, the way I imagine astronauts must dream of setting foot on Mars.

For the next two years I sailed as a deckhand on a number of schooners, primarily working for the Ocean Classroom Foundation, a high-school semester program based in Maine and Rhode Island. I sailed as far south as Venezuela and north to Nova Scotia. When I first started my sailing career, I thought I would be content to sail as a deckhand forever, enjoying the simplicity of life “before the mast” and the thrill of travel. It wasn’t until I sailed as bosun and deckhand on the Harvey Gamage during Ocean Classroom that I thought I ought to be more ambitious.    

In the next year, I studied hard and sat for my 100-ton inland master’s and near-coastal mate’s license. I moved up to sail as third mate on the schooner Westward during another Ocean Classroom semester. I led a watch, navigated the ship, and taught a number of classes. Now I felt I had the nerve to contact one of the captains of Pride II about a job. He offered me a position, and I signed aboard the ship as a deckhand the following autumn.

My dream to sail on the Pride of Baltimore II had finally come true, but after crewing professionally for more than three years, I was taking a step back down the ladder to sail as a deckhand. Also, Pride II sails as a goodwill ambassador for the state of Maryland – education is not really a priority, and it had become clear to me that working with kids was one of the most rewarding parts of sailing. But I proved my skills that season, and the captains asked me to return the following spring either as bosun or second mate. There was talk of the ship going to Europe, and never having done an Atlantic crossing, I signed up.

On the last day of February 2005, the rest of the crew and I arrived in Baltimore, the winter berth of Pride II. We set to work preparing the ship and ourselves to face the Atlantic, and beyond that, Europe. On May 2, we departed Annapolis, heading out of Delaware Bay, then northeast toward Baltimore, Ireland, a coastal town at the southwestern tip of the country, and farther on, Copenhagen. A low-pressure system following us up the East Coast forced us to duck into Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, for almost a week, waiting out the weather. Then we slipped our mooring lines and set out, steering east.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005, 1330 hours

We turned-to at 5 a.m. to get underway from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. It’s a windless day, but sunny. Some fog, a whale, and a couple of gulls visited our quiet watch this morning. We’re steering just south of east by a couple of points. I’m sick, with a sore throat and cough, and I think I should be tired but my eyes are wide open. Everyone seems content to be underway, even with the drone of the diesel engines breaking up the calm and quiet on the North Atlantic today.

Thursday, May 12, 2005, 1810 hours

We are still motoring, sails slatting as we roll along over gray swells. Dolphins were playing in the bow waves earlier, and one had a white stripe across its nose like one of those sticky plaster strips to banish pimples. We spent the morning setting sail and practicing sail evolutions, including reefing and un-reefing the mains’l. I am finally beginning to feel comfortable calling evolutions like that, though I need to work on my mate’s “bellow.” We had a lobster-pot buoy caught on the rudder and hove-to before sending one of the deckhands over the transom with a knife, mask, and a lanyard to cut it free. He’s gotten the reputation as the “I’ll do anything exciting” deckhand. I napped after lunch, my sleep broken by coughing, and woke to the engine rumbling on again. The wind is supposed to return tomorrow. I feel like crap. Crew members ask how I am and I say, “Alive.”

The cook’s bread smells good. I screwed up a lot today, but just kept going. I’m learning that moving on is all there is to do. I wonder what the captain thinks when he has to remind me of things all the time. I feel like I am practicing being mediocre.

My eyes are tired and I should sleep before watch. We went 177 miles from last noon to this one, all of them under power. At an all-hands muster we learned that Chip fell and hit his nose while stowing dock lines in the chain locker. It might be broken, but all there is to do is be more careful in these rolly seas. The captain says we may have to stop in the Azores for fuel, depending on how the wind goes (and comes). The weather forecast says we’ll get strong NW’lys by tomorrow, but we may not stop in Baltimore, Ireland, as planned. The office calculates the schedule at 130 miles per day and we were two days short on time even before the weather had us stop in Lunenburg. We don’t have enough fuel to motor the whole way, so the captain is taking a gamble and heading south where the wind is supposed to be. Maybe we’ll be able to stay with that low-pressure system until we hit Europe.

Friday, May 13, 2005, 1643 hours

It seems the captain’s endless study of the weather has paid off. We found the wind, or it’s found us, somewhat south of yesterday’s position. I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt more uncomfortable in my life. It’s blowing 30 to 35 knots on the port quarter now, and the following seas have begun to build with the wind. We were making 9.5 to 10 knots when I got off watch at noon. But it’s hard to appreciate our speed in this following breeze, feeling as miserable as I do. I’m nauseous, have a sore throat, stuffy nose, headache, chills, bruised head, and dry lips. It’s hard to sleep. I move like a ninety-year-old woman. I feel so fragile and weak.

Saturday, May 14, 2005, 0550 hours

We were just woken, as the standby watch, to “help take the fore.” I could feel there was little wind, and wondered why the fores’l needed to come in. As my watch piled groggily up from below, it was already chaos on deck. The charlie noble was in the scuppers, and lines were strewn about everywhere. I practically had to smoke the fore throat halyard to get it down fast enough, but we raised a “well done” from the captain. The ocean and sky had woven a magical seascape, and sunrise peeked through the clouds as we triced up the jib to prepare for any more squalls; they’d had winds to 60 knots just before we got on deck. I slept through them.

1820 hours

We’re motoring again. Watch this morning was amidst all sorts of squall lines. I feel scared, like I want to cry. I was dreaming about the way Mom smells when she goes to bed, after she has applied her lotions and taken off her glasses, and her face is all soft with beautiful wrinkles, her full, gray hair framing her face.

I don’t want to live the life of a sailor anymore. I don’t want to live a life of danger. I don’t get any thrill out of it. I love working with amazing people like Captain Miles, and that almost makes some of this worth it, but I don’t want to dread the eight hours a day when the deck is my responsibility. I look up at my parents’ faces smiling from the white-painted overhead where their photos are stuck, and all I can think is that I want to see them. How did I get so lucky to have them as my parents? I know it’s an amazing thing that I am sailing across the Atlantic, and I wouldn’t have given up the opportunity for a lot of things, but that doesn’t make it any easier right now.

In three hours I have to go back on deck to meet 50-knot winds and possibly two to three hours on the helm. The captain has requested that we wear our inflatable harnesses while on watch and clip in when we aren’t moving around on deck. While we were off watch and I was trying to sleep, the on-watch and the standby took the mains’l, foretops’l, jib, and stays’l. They triced up the jib again, set the storm jib, and reefed the fores’l. I felt guilty for not helping, but I’m just trying to get better.

Monday, May 16, 2005, 1821 hours

Watch this morning was absolutely exhausting, both mentally and physically. I did a pretty good job of not getting too emotional, even as sails flew around and the captain roared. We jibed ship and it was a completely intense maneuver. I wasn’t given much idea of what a jibe in this sort of wind, with a reefed fores’l, would entail, so the captain and I were flying by the seats of our pants together. I felt like things were out of control, but because I trusted the captain and crew, all there was to do was the next thing the captain said. We all stayed in pretty good spirits, though I was so completely spent by the end of watch, I couldn’t even think about the issue we are having with our new safety harnesses inflating accidentally. The wind has been blowing between 35 and 50 knots for the last twenty-four hours, and the swells aren’t getting any smaller. One third of the crew is sick with this horrible cold. Must sleep before dinner.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005, 1745 hours

We just spent the last hour and a half jibing ship, shaking the reef in the fores’l, setting the jib, and then coming below to eat freshly baked banana bread. I’m not sure what possessed me to go on deck to help the other two watches, but I knew I would feel all sorts of schooner guilt if I didn’t. We are headed back north of east again. The captain says this puts the Azores out of the picture. Because we must arrive in Copenhagen in two weeks, so is Ireland. We head straight for the mouth of the English Channel. We made 215 nautical miles noon to noon today, and we continue on, surfing down huge seas. I definitely saw some fifteen footers and a few twenties.

The sun’s been out since the morning. The moonlight last night was bizarre; we haven’t really had moonlight on watch since we left, and it felt almost unreal. The moon’s at first quarter, and maybe if we’re lucky, we’ll be able to see more of it tonight. For five days I’ve been living like a zombie. My main mission in life has been to make it through the next hour or two without puking or sneezing. Our bodies have been going through an amazing test of strength and stamina, and my mind, a similar test. The wind has finally laid down a bit, and I took a shower to try to prime the aft bilge/graywater pump and because I was dirtier than I’ve been in years. It felt fantastic. My cabin looks like a tornado hit, but all I can think of is sleeping.

Thursday, May 19, 2005, 1430 hours
Underway for Copenhagen via Falmouth, England

It’s an absolutely gorgeous day out here on the North Atlantic. The sun is shining, the breeze is laying down, and I woke up from my nap feeling rested this afternoon for the first time since before we left Lunenburg. I am so thankful for good health and fair wind and frisky breezes. The engineer and I are lounging on the quarterdeck, reading, sunning white legs and tummies, drying out boots and socks, and generally enjoying the sunshine. A bunch of sailors are up the windward shrouds, lashing on chafe gear and generally inspecting the rig. Even with all the sunshine on deck, the fo’c’s’l is a swamp. The starboard forward part of the fo’c’s’l is partitioned off with huge black trash bags, and the bosun’s rack is pretty much uninhabitable. I feel somewhat guilty for having a dry bunk, but at least I can offer the bosun that.

Yesterday we ended watch on a low note after finding the t’gallant stay had parted, and that the lazy jib sheet had chafed through where it lays on the wire forestay. It is hard to let go of that stuff and remember that the care of those things is not solely my responsibility. I find myself wanting to just get through the hours these days. My on-watch time is motivated by my next time off. I always feel like I should be getting more ship’s work done on watch, but I’m not sure what I should be doing. I was feeling inspired to write letters while on watch, but off-watch time came and I became conflicted on the right way to spend my time. Sleeping? Doing something for myself? For the ship? It’s easy to compare my contributions to the ship with other crew members, but it’s difficult to remember that the things that people bring to the ship and its community are not always tangible. I have my positive, patient attitude to share with these folks, and when I let other stuff get in the way, I’m not even giving what I have. Also to remember: Life isn’t going to be perfect when I get off this ship – all the hard parts will still be there, so I need to keep living each day as a day of my life, instead of another day to pass until I can start living the life I want.

Friday, May 20, 2005, 1711 hours
Underway for Falmouth, England

The port we are making for is about five days’ sail away – four days if it were possible to make 200 miles per day all in the right direction. The ship made good 240 nautical miles from last midnight to midnight, and our watch today logged 40 miles. The wind has been up and down, forward and astern, and all around, as we see the edge of a cold front with mini–rain squalls coming by to give us a little excitement. The clouds have been all sorts of interesting, and the captain says there is a gale to the north of us that is sending big ol’ northerly swells our direction. On we sail toward the southwest corner of England, going fast and hoping the wind holds.

Sunday, May 22, 2005, 1800 hours
Less than 350 nautical miles from Falmouth, England

We’re still cruising along between eight and ten knots. This morning we bent on and set the jib tops’l during our watch and almost shook the second reef out of the mains’l, but just as we started, the captain changed his mind. We’ve had squalls galore, the sky is still changing all the time, and squall lines pass once or twice an hour. This afternoon, the captain hosted a 48-Hour (To Go) party on the quarterdeck and it rained for the first twenty minutes. Most of us stuck it out, though, and were still on deck for the double rainbow that came afterward. Cook made smoothies and there was a bottle of white wine to go with the cheese and crackers and goldfish. The captain put things well yesterday when he said this trip has been “relentlessly lively.” So true. My eyes still feel swollen whenever I wake up and I’m exhausted after most watches. For most of the crew, reading is a good escape from the over-stimulation on deck, but the painful feeling in my head is too distracting for me to dive into a book. Like other expectations I’ve had for this trip, my goal to read for an hour every day has gone straight overboard.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005, 2200 hours
Falmouth, England

Our last night watch underway was wretched. Spitting rain, blowing 40 to 50 knots, lumpy seas, reduced visibility, and the fear of fishing boats around. The anticipation of land got us through, though, to the green shores of southwest England. We blew right in this morning, the breeze gusting up as we got closer to the mouth of the harbor. The greens were so vivid, and we couldn’t tell if they looked that way because it has been so long since we’d taken in trees and grassy hillsides. The lushness of Falmouth surprised us all. The Gulf Stream comes right in here and warms the climate up. There are even mini–palm trees!

We worked the rest of the day, cleaning the boat and clothes. And drying out the fo’c’s’l folks and their gear. The ship is in pretty tough shape after the crossing. They don’t call her the “chafe machine” for nothing.

We ended the workday at 7 p.m., and my friend, the assistant engineer, and I headed into town. The first steps I’d taken on shore after two weeks underway were heavenly. We both let out a huge sigh of relief when we were off the wharf and walking out of the industrial port. It was just such a huge release to be off the ship, to be on land. We had a lovely evening exploring Falmouth. On the way into town, I wanted to stop and snap a photo of every little green plant growing out of the stone walls, and every pretty flower. I wanted to take in all that living green and color. Narrow streets were lined with tiers of brightly colored houses stacked up the hillside. For dinner we found a take-out fish-and-chips place called Smack-Alley that sold fried Mars bars and veggie burgers. Fried food in hand, we found the town square and ate and enjoyed each other’s company until the evening air turned cold and we made our way back to the ship.