Thoughts on Swagger

By David Kessler

In this installment: While Out on a Limb.  Thoughts on Swagger.  A Reverie for the Life.

"Merrily, Merrily, so merry sail we
No mortal on earth like a sailor at sea
And it's heave-a-way, haul-a-way, our ship rolls along
Give a sailor his grog and there's nothing goes wrong"

When we sailed back into Boston Harbor we made a quick circuit and turnaround by the Charlestown Navy Yard and then moored at Rowes Warf.  A couple who had met several years ago on board the Rose (I never did get the full story) were going to be married on board that evening and we had an hour or two to get the ship presentable, and to get our scruffy - after 2 weeks of limited water for bathing - selves gone until the ceremony was over.

The first duty after mooring was to furl all the sails; not the basic "sea-stow" that we used while we were underway, but the more involved "harbor-stow" that required twice the manpower, plus an extra crewmember to coordinate all our movements.  I was as eager as ever to work aloft (always the best job on board!) and I was the first one up to the forecourse yard, so I moved out to the starboard yardarm to wait for everyone else to get into position.  I ended up waiting for a while, but not because my fellow trainees were slow.  Boston was our first planned stop since Canada, so a Customs Officer had come on board to make sure we were all accounted for.  He set up his official clipboard and papers on the starboard quarterdeck - an area we had left to the exclusive use of the captain and mates.  Then, just as we were in place to begin the harbor-stow, we were all called back down to be compared to our passport photos and to answer any clever, fake-ID revealing questions he might ask.  I came, I was checked-off, I returned to my position aloft.

Hanging out on the yardarm and waiting for the government to finish determining that we were all who said we were, I enjoyed the scenes around the dock below me.  There were wedding workers moving stacks of chairs (the first padded chairs we had seen in 2 weeks), and carts of glasses, and there was a crowd of passersby beginning to collect near the ship, marveling and pointing and photographing us as we worked or moved about.  I was level with the third or fourth floor of Rowes Warf and I waved at a woman typing on her computer.  The motion caught her eye and she instinctively began to waive back until it dawned on her that she didn't ordinarily have people hanging outside her window.  With her hand frozen half way through a wave her eyes widened, looked down to the water, followed the mast up to where I was balancing on the foot rope, and then she slowly finished her waive with a slightly confused look on her face.

By the time we had finished aloft, there were onlookers everywhere: at the dockside, at the office windows, and at the railing of every terrace and observation deck on the waterfront.  We were, without question, the coolest thing that everyone there had seen since, well, since we had left 2 weeks earlier.

During those 2 weeks, we learned something of the life and culture out of which many aspects of the history we were studying developed, and learned these things with an immediacy that came from actually living on board.  We learned how it feels to have one's entire inhabitable world be 179 feet long, and we came to see both the sailors in our history books and those we met along the voyage in a different light.

Up until the 20th century, the tallest vantage point on the Boston docks was aloft in the rigging of a tall ship, 10-15 stories high.  The glass and steel architecture that allowed for the skyscraping office buildings we live with today didn't begin until just before the turn of this century.  Before that, buildings were seldom built more than 8-10 stories tall.  Coming into harbor, a sailor up in the rigging was on top of the world!

The world still recognizes that sailors in port are their own species; when the parade of tall ships came to town earlier this year, the Boston Globe devoted more than one story to how the influx of several thousand sailors for a week changed the city's culture and nightlife.  They could just as easily have written about how being sailors changed ours: When we took our turnaround by the Charlestown Navy yard, we hooted and hollered as our Boatswain fired 4 cannons at the Coast Guard's training vessel Eagle.  That evening, we naturally gravitated toward the local bars, as we had done in every port.  Visiting the beautiful USS Constitution the next day, we spent our entire wait in line critiquing the sloppy job the Navy had done in stowing their sails.  When we did get on board, it seemed perfectly natural to get a private tour of the ship's lowest decks - complete with ghost stories - from a fellow sailor, and only incidental that he was a sailor in the US Navy.

Now we were on top of the world, and not all the skyscrapers in Boston could change that, because even they knew that a fully rigged ship had them beat.  In previous ports it had always been a very cool feeling to head toward the docks, see the ship and think,  Yup, that's where I'm sleeping tonight.  Adding the voyage up in my mind that last evening, I began to appreciate the natural swagger of a sailor; It's something like school spirit, or like coming out of a particularly good adventure, but broader and more independent because everything and everyone you need is right there, floating at the dockside in the most majestic carrying case you could imagine.  That evening we arrived back in Boston was my birthday, and I considered calling some friends and telling them I was back a day early, but I decided not to.  I felt more like being a sailor that day then like telling anyone I was back, and ending the trip early.

"We know what risks all landsmen run
From noblemen to tailors
Then, Bill, let us thank providence
That you and I are sailors"

-William Pitt

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