Tuesday, September 1, 2015

So Maybe I Should Talk About the Actual Sailing

We never got to be on the ship with all the sails working -- but isn't it a beautiful sight? Check out the El Galeon website for more pix.

Over not quite 3 months, the ship was planning to travel from Florida to Maine and back again.  We were certainly looking forward to some sea time.  And it would be a lot different from our usual travels on Cinderella. Bigger ship and bigger crew -- fulltime engineers! Someone else worrying about the navigation and logistics, and someone else paying the dockage!  With a full crew, we organized into 3 watches: 8-12, 12-4, and 4-8.  They had picturesque Spanish names: the first watch was guardia de prima, the midnight watch was guardia de modorra (literally, "watch of drowsiness") and the 4-8 was guardia de alba ("watch of dawn.")  For us, four hours on and eight hours off was a luxurious amount of sleep on a passage, even if we did seem to be assigned to the midnight watch for more than our fair share of the trips.  (I flatter myself thinking that it was because we could be relied on to stay awake and actually, you know, watching during those late nights.)

But there was a downside to this being a commercial trip instead of a pleasure cruise.  My friend Ellen always claimed that the most dangerous thing you could have on a ship is a calendar.  And that was the other difference from travel on Cinderella - we had a calendar.  A calendar makes you leave when the weather is not ideal, in order to make your next port on schedule.   And that was also true for our first sail of the cities tour.  On Cinderella, we'd just wait for better weather, but on El Galeon that wasn't an option.  So our first sail started with us fighting 20 kt headwinds that kicked up uncomfortable gray-green waves in Delaware Bay as we left Philadelphia under cloudy skies and headed to New York City.  It was conditions that would be miserable in Cinderella; on the Galeon it was merely inconvenient.  For a couple of the crew this was their first-ever sail.  "Is it always like this?" one asked me.  No, don't worry, kiddo, you're just getting the crappy part over with first.  After this, everything will seem easy.

And the second day was easy indeed.  Sparkling blue skies, and when we turned out of the Bay the wind that we'd been beating into moderated and shifted to behind us -- perfect for sailing.  We were all energized and enjoyed the beauty.  The motion was gentle rocking, we unfurled two of the sails and glided across the water.  Magic.

We saw dolphins and some whales by day, bioluminescence at night.  We drew the midnight watch for August 12 and spent all of it looking skyward.  The Perseids meteor shower was brilliant on a moonless night out in the ocean away from any city lights.  The Spanish name for meteor shower is "rain of stars."  Yep.  Great name.

Sadly, that first trip was the only one in which we got to sail.  The Galeon doesn't have a real keel and only draws about 10 feet.  In the old days, these square-rigged ships could only sail downwind.  "If the wind ain't blowin', this ship ain't goin', " I tell the kids who visit us.  The combination of "downwind only" and "sailing with a schedule" meant that for all the other trips, we motored to our destination.  Too little wind is far better than too much, though!  When the weather and sea conditions permitted we did light maintenance during the day, but there was plenty of time for just looking.  I oiled a lot of teak on those days.  I like painting; it can be meditative, or you can be chatting with another crew member if you're working together.

That lack of keel makes us roll quite a bit when underway if the waves are coming at us from the side.  Not an uncomfortable, snappy roll, it was slow and predictable, but a roll that took some getting used to.  I got my "sea legs" and learned to walk across the deck only toward the uphill side -- walking downhill on a rolling deck, if the ship rolled any more in that direction the downhill slope got steeper and it was a sure recipe for a faceplant.  In the old days in bad weather you would shorten sail very literally, lowering the sails closer to the deck.  Decreasing the amount of canvas that was working decreased your speed, which could be a good thing if there was too much wind.  Decreasing the weight aloft also helped decrease the side-to-side roll of the ship.  Our modern version of that?  We would sometimes drop the spars all the way down to the rails of the ship if we were going at an angle where we couldn't sail anyway.  Less weight aloft made us more comfortable, and the sails on deck made for some nifty private places.

I love watching (and helping!) the ship transform from a floating museum to travel mode, like Cinderella's coach at midnight.  The canvas and rope-wrapped "casks of rum" on the quarterdeck change back into inflatable lifeboat pods; the burlap comes off the enigmatic lumpy thing at the base of the mast to expose a fire extinguisher; and the top comes off the pedestal by the wheel to reveal the engine throttles.  The gun deck changes from a museum to storage for the oversize fenders; the movie and music is turned off and the hatch open to reveal engine room access.  And our crew changes from tour guides to sailors.

It's raining stars!!  (Image from here.)


  1. What a very interesting time you've had! I love the names of the watches :-)

  2. It has indeed been a remarkable voyage.