The Romance of the Sea

By David Kessler

In this installment: A Different Kind of Romance.  On and Off the Clock (or, Always Something Doin').  Land versus Sea.  Midnight on the Water.

Now you ask, "What's this Romantic boy who laments what's done and gone?
There was no romance on a cold winter ocean and the gales sang an awful song."

 - Stan Rogers, Fisherman's Warf

Mentioning that I went sailing on a tall ship conjures up some very romantic and cinematic visions for people.  The idea conjured up images for me as well - before I went.  I thought of climbing aloft in the rigging, singing shanties, swinging on lines, and firing canons at anyone foolish enough to cross us.  I thought of pirates and swashbucklers, and of working through a good storm.  Meanwhile, many of the people I talk to now imagine gazing out over a deep blue sea, gazing up at the stars, gazing off at the horizon... you get the idea.  One person recently speculated that it must have been very romantic to take the midnight watch.  When I and a friend who had been on the voyage heard this we both started to laugh.  We weren't trying to be mean, it was a very honest laugh from trying to grasp that statement and our memories at the same time.

Yes, sailing on a tall ship is very romantic in an old sense of the word; The trip as a whole had adventure and sweep and has provided so many good stories and memories for us that I imagine we all have lubber friends who just "don't want to hear any more about your damn boat trip!" That said, individual moments on watch very seldom had any more sweep than waking up at 4 am to take a cold shower in your clothes does, and midnight means much less at sea than it does on land.

I hope I can explain how a voyage that has achieved near-mythological status in the minds of its participants was often exhausting, cold, and maddening.  How we often wanted to strangle people we would have raced to defend in port.  And how time was so central and yet simultaneously so meaningless to us as we took our 2 week crash course in becoming blue-water sailors.

For roughly the last 200 years, the standard shipboard schedule has been the 3-watch system, in which sailors work a 4-hour watch and then have an 8-hour break.  For example, a sailor would work from 4pm to 8pm, and then have 8 hours off before working from 4am to 8am.  The 8 hours off could, of course, be cut short by a call of "all hands" for some duty or meeting that required more bodies than any single watch contained, so variation from this enslavement to the clock is only to work extra hours.

On board the Rose, these 4-hour watches are further broken down into 4 1-hour periods through which the members of the watch on duty rotate to evenly distribute all tasks.  Meals and other activities are largely determined around this system, giving the impression that keeping everything "shipshape" and sailing along is a function of the clock.  In the most basic sense this is true, but that does not tell the whole story.

Constant repetition of the same pattern of duties makes the time-bound regimentation of shipboard life fade before other cues: When you stand watch, braced against a cold wind and a seeping fog, being relieved by the next watch is the only interval that matters because you have to stay at your post until relieved.  If you're working aloft, then you only come down when you have finished your task or are called.  When you are awoken to muster and relieve the previous watch, "What time is it" is a useless question.  It could be any time of day and you must still answer when called; after a day or two the first and only words out your mouth on being awoken are "What's the weather?" so that you know how many layers to put on before heading on deck.  There are people with authority over the ship calling the shots and any need to know the time is lost in the chain of command, which has no snooze-button.

From basic maintenance, to steering and trimming sail, to checking to make sure the ship isn't sinking, there is always something to do on board a tall ship, and always someone awake and doing it.  My first night on board the Rose I was unable to sleep - whether from excitement and anticipation, or from not being used to the confined bunks and odd noises I don't know - so I went up on deck to stretch, look about, and try to relax my mind.  I ended up talking to a crewmember on watch and helping him stack carboys of fresh water behind a bulkhead, which we first removed and later replaced.

A few hours later, muster was called (I think I got 2 or 3 hours of sleep that morning) and we began our introduction to life at sea.  This included the duty of boat-check, for which we became as grateful as we were sometimes annoyed.  Boat check involves descending into all compartments below the water line to check for problems, and as one of the duties through which all members of the watch shift, no section of the ship goes more than an hour without being checked for potential trouble.  The lowest levels of the ship are where people sleep (there is always someone asleep on a ship), so boat check generally means poking around with a flashlight.  Once we were completely out of sight of land, and the reality of being on a wooden-hulled ship sank in (if you will excuse my poor choice of words), the necessity for this vigilance on our fragile world became obvious.

Repetition and authority aren't the only reasons that we stopped caring about the time.  On land we spend our waking hours surrounded by thousands of people.  Cars rush past us, radios and televisions broadcast, and all the other trappings of daily life create a busy, noisy backdrop that continues until nightfall.  Then, people calm down, socialize, and finally go to bed, leaving the few night owls of society with a deserted landscape.  Midnight on land is quiet, peaceful, slow, and unassuming - altogether different from daylight hours.  At sea, meanwhile, midnight requires the same work that takes place during the day, because waves are still rolling, and the ship must stay afloat.  Work is only altered with changes in the wind and weather, which do not follow a 24-hour cycle.  The only consistent difference between day and night at sea, is that night is dark.

So there we all were, standing the midnight watches (and the 4am watches), each in our turn.  We had usually been fast asleep 15 minutes earlier, and were waking up to the fog and spray that was so good at finding our ship.  A few hours of work and then below for tea, or - supplies willing - ramen noodles.

The waters we plowed through were filled with tiny phosphorescent creatures that were invisible to our eyes, until they were disturbed by the ship and lit up.  They created a luminous band, blinking through the surf that hit our bow, as if we had streamers of fireflies attached to our figurehead.  Other nights were punctuated by lightning, sudden shifts in the wind, and truly bad weather.  One night, another ship emerged from the thick fog far too close to us for comfort.  Tying these regular drenchings together were quiet conversations over tea, lemonade, and pieces of old rope with our fellows about to go on duty, or just coming off.  These were the elements of our romantic nights at sea.

So you see where you misunderstand me
If you listen again then you might even find
All the songs that I sing are love songs
But their love is a different kind
- Dick Gaughan, A Different Kind of Love Song

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